African Nightflight

1

Videodiary Entry: March 23 2008.
Ten thousand metres over the Equator
.

Now we’ll see if it’s true. The Coriolis effect thing. Dr Dan probably thinks I’m either insane or have amoebic dysentery, but if you’ve got a Personal Data Unit that can give you exact time and location anywhere on the planet, how could you resist testing the old Plughole and Hemisphere Experiment?

God, I hope no one really has amoebic dysentery and needs to get in. Muttering from the portside toilet. Probably think I’m scoring lines, or applying for the Mile High Club.

What we are now seeing is the wash hand-basin of a Kenya Airways Airbus A-330. The PDU says we are travelling at eight hundred and eighty kilometres per hour; our location is twelve kays north of the Equator. Which – just a moment while I press a few buttons – is fifty seconds or so.

T-ten. I pull the plug. Lo! The water spirals clockwise. Three, two, one: Equator. And the water is running straight down the sides of the plughole. Now I’m in the southern hemisphere and, ta-dah! The water spirals anti-clockwise. Gaby McAslan proves that the earth moves in space.

You know, I wasn’t totally convinced it would do that.

Gaby McAslan switched off the visioncam. The cabin staff were getting restless out there. They had obviously all read Airport. She sniffed the soap, rejected it, emptied out the clever little lockers and plundered them. The disposable razors would be useful. The men’s cologne did not smell too bad. Condoms. FlightMates. She took a handful more as a hope than a precaution. Her Malaria/Yellow Fever/HIV 1 and 2 inoculation scab itched sympathetically.

Back in executive, Dr Dan had ordered her another whisky on his government account.

‘Well, did it?’ he asked. His voice was gentle and very deep.

‘It did.’

He stirred his drink with a plastic swizzle stick shaped like an elongated giraffe.

‘I suppose it is a kind of cancer,’ he said. Executive class was being woken up with passion-fruit juice and microwaved croissants. The plane was well into its descent path. ‘The Chaga, I mean. As there are sicknesses that eat a person’s life away from inside, so there are diseases of nations. It invades the land, draws strength from it, kills what it finds and duplicates only itself. While we sit here contemplating our croissants, it is growing, it is spreading. It never sleeps. Even the name you have given it is not its own, but has been taken from the people who once lived there: what else can it be, Ms McAslan, than a cancer?’

He glanced out the window. Nothing to see in the pre-dawn dark but engine glow and the flicker of warning beacons.

‘So early in the task of nation-building, too. Why, we have scarcely fifty years of history behind us and suddenly, boom!’ He softly smacked heel of hand into palm. ‘Surely, God is not kind to Kenya: just as the information revolution was allowing us to take our true place in the world, we find we must go hand open to the United Nations. We shall certainly not have fifty more years. What is it they are estimating? Twenty more until the country is overrun? Seventy years is not time to be a nation. Why could it not have come down in France or England, where they have too much history; or China or India, where they have so much past they do not know what to do with it? Or America, where at least they could turn being made into another planet into a theme park.’

In the course of her professional travel, Gaby McAslan had come to dread airline booking computers and their malicious humour. They put you next to terrible people. The noisiest eater in the world. The man with the one long hair coming down his nose that you couldn’t take your eyes off until you wanted to reach over and tear it out by its follicle. The teenager whose Discman would hiss and whisper away in the high treble notes. The person who had memorized every word of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Sometimes the computers relented. Then their favour shone upon you.

‘You will pardon me if I blaspheme,’ the big, heavy, black man in the next seat had said as the Airbus turned on to Heathrow’s main runway and throttled up. ‘I am not a very good flier, I am afraid.’ He had sunk his fingers into the armrest and stared at his feet. As the plane lifted off, he very reverently whispered, ‘Jesus.’

He was Dr Daniel Oloitip. You would not think to look at him, but he was Masai.

‘I have become a city creature, sleek and soft,’ he had apologized. ‘But mostly old.’

‘I like your ear,’ Gaby had said, looking at his right lobe, which had been pierced and stretched into a loop of flesh that hung to his jawline. Dr Daniel Oloitip had taken a Fujifilm can from the bag under his seat and slipped it through the loop.

‘This is the current fashion. They throw them out of safari buses by the thousand. It does not create quite the right image for the Overseas Development Agency.’

Dr Dan was a politician, the member of Parliament for Amboseli and Kajiado South constituency. He was returning for a daughter’s wedding from an aid-begging mission around the capitals of the European Union. A waste of time, he reckoned. The Europeans had been civil, but there would be no more money. They would not lend to a nation that might not be there by the time the first interest payment became due.

‘It is ironic that they send me with the alms bowl, whose constituency will be the first to go. Already half is lost, though I draw some small satisfaction from knowing that I will be the first Parliamentary representative for another planet. Next election I shall be canvassing aliens.’

Dr Dan set his yellow plastic swizzle giraffe at the end of a line along the edge of his folding table. Gaby sipped the whisky he had bought her and imagined Kenya slipping away beneath the belly of the Airbus. Dark Africa, down in the underdawn. Wonderful names: Eldoret and Kisumu, Longonot and Nandi Hills, Nyeri and Ngong. Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha, Lake Baringo. Mt Elgon and Mt Kenya; the Aberdares that were now the Nyandarua. The Rift Valley. These were among the first places to be named by human voices. Powerful, ancient names.

She could feel the descent in her inner ears. The captain bing-bonged. Should be down in about so long. Temperature about so warm, wind-speed so fast. Please set your watches to East African time, non-Kenyan nationals please have your landing cards ready for collection, and we advise you that under exchange regulations all foreign currency brought into the country must be declared on arrival and that it is illegal to import any Kenyan currency. Thank you.

They were going down and all the anticipation that had pretended it was only anxiety about the long journey became a fist of excitement in the base of her belly. The big Airbus was dipping down over all those strong, ancient names towards a new city, new friends, a new job, new life. Towards SkyNet, and Nairobi, and to the south, not so far on the map but on the very frontier of the imagination, the Chaga. Like the Chaga, none of it could be stopped. Not now. Her hands were shaking so badly she could hardly fill in the landing card. Dr Dan smiled as he saw her write On-line Multimedia Journalist in the space that asked her occupation.

‘Westerners have always come to my country because of something,’ he said. ‘It used to be because of the animals, because of the coast. Now it is because of the Chaga. No one comes because it is Kenya. That does not seem to be enough, unfortunately. Be good to my country, Gaby McAslan: it is a good country. The world should know that, if it knows nothing else.

The plane rocked a little.

‘Oh dear me.’ Dr Dan closed his eyes and gripped the armrests. Sweat had broken out on his forehead. The captain came on again. If you look out the left, those lights are Nairobi. That’s where we’ll land. The plane rocked again. Down went the flaps. The Airbus banked steeply. Gaby looked down at the yellow lights, scattered like grain on the high, dark plain.

The plane slammed sharply to the right. Engines screamed. Gaby shrieked and seized the seat back in front of her. Dr Dan grabbed for the window frame, trying to brace himself but there is nothing you can hold on to when you are sliding towards the ground at three hundred kilometres per hour. All the plastic giraffes fell off the table. Hostesses went reeling. Landing cards scattered like frightened birds. Gaby saw a shape loom in the window, a ghostly pale winged thing far closer than any shape should have been. For an instant the other aircraft’s lights lit up the Airbus’s cabin, then it was gone.

Gaby and Dr Dan stared at each other. It was the stare of people who have felt the wind from beneath the wings of the angel of death, who is white, and fast, and always closer than you think.

‘I saw another plane,’ Gaby whispered. ‘A big white plane. Coming right at us.’

Dr Dan nodded.

‘A near miss,’ he croaked. ‘It was a UNECTA aircraft.’

The captain apologized on the PA and said that there had been a close approach situation but everything was under control and they would be on the ground in three minutes. He sounded like he would personally be very glad to be down there. Fasten Seat-belts/No Smoking pinged on. Gaby felt the reassuring rumble of wheels going down and locking. Three minutes later they were on the ground. They taxied a long way to find a stand. They all seemed to be occupied by enormous transport aircraft hastily painted white with the blue mountain-and-paired-crescents symbol of UNECTAfrique on their tails.

Gaby and Dr Dan waited for the plane to empty before gathering their things. On the concrete it was colder than Gaby expected equatorial Africa should be. Streaks of grey and dull red lightened the sky behind the main tower. Dr Dan shook Gaby’s hand at the foot of the steps.

‘Have a good wedding,’ Gaby said.

‘I doubt it, somehow. Her betrothed is not a good man. Then again, my daughter is not a good woman. So maybe it will work well. If it does not, I shall want back the fifty cattle I gave that good-for-nothing as dowry.’ A black Mercedes was approaching from under the passenger pier. ‘It was a pleasure to have met you, Gaby McAslan. Doubtless, given the nature of our vocations, we will meet again. I look forward to it. I shall certainly never use an aircraft washroom again without thinking of you.’ He smiled wickedly and was driven away in the black Mercedes.

Don’t go, Gaby wanted to shout, alone on the apron among the huge white aircraft. Don’t leave me.

They had lost her luggage. She waited for it to appear in Reclaim until the man came to shut the carousel off. He told her where she could make a report, and not to worry. The immigration officer was just settling down for a doze when she came through. He stamped her passport, checked her inoculation certificates and assured her with a wonderful, generous smile that her bag would turn up very soon. She would see. The smart woman with the very good English at the airline desk gave the same assurances and smile. It would be brought to her hotel. Where was she staying? The PanAfric. But only for three days until she found somewhere more permanent.

There was one figure in the whole big arrivals hall. He was a short, stoutish, middle-aged man in the rumpled linen suit that was uniform for male East Africa staff. His black hair was receding at the front but had been let grow long at the back. It looked as if his scalp had slipped. He wore round spectacles that, with everything else, gave the impression of an owl on a long-haul holiday. Rather needlessly, he was holding a cardboard sign with Gabriel McAslan felt-markered on it.

‘T.P. Costello?’

‘Gabriel McAslan?’

‘Gaby.’

They shook hands.

‘Is this all you’ve got?’ the short man asked. He was the Nairobi Station Chief of SkyNet News but had never lost his native North Dublin accent. Easier to take the boy out of Barrytown than Barrytown out of the boy.

‘They lost my luggage.’

‘It’ll turn up. That’s the amazing thing about this country. It looks like bloody chaos but things get done all the same.’

It was even colder in the car-park than on the apron. Gaby’s breath steamed. The grey dawn light was just strong enough to make the white floods dazzling and surreal. The SkyNet logos on the sides and hood of the big Toyota Landcruiser gleamed.

I am here, Gaby McAslan told herself as she fastened her seat-belt. This is me, this is real. No. She could not believe it. There was still a pane of glass like a television screen between her and the reality that she was in Africa.

‘Good flight?’

‘Apart from losing all my worldly goods and a near-miss with a UNECTA plane on the way down, about as good as any long-haul flight can be.’

‘Those bloody Antonovs,’ T.P. Costello said, sliding his credit card into the car-park reader. Things should have been scrapped twenty years ago, but as usual the UN’s running the whole damn show on a shoestring. It’ll take hundreds of dead bodies before they wise up.’

‘There almost were.’ Soldiers in blue helmets waved them through the sandbagged permanent checkpoint. ‘I met an interesting guy, though. Could be useful. Dr Daniel Oloitip.’

T.P. Costello laughed.

‘Dr Dan. He’s all right. One of the white hats, I suppose. At least he doesn’t have his head so far up UNECTA’s ass that every time it yawns you can see him singing “God Bless America”. An African problem with an African solution, he says. I agree with him.’

‘Except it’s an Asian and South American and Indian Ocean problem as well.’

They were on the main road now, a good two-lane highway. Most of the street lights were still working. It was early, but traffic was heavy. A stream of taxis flowed out from the city, some with biogas compression tanks fitted into their trunks. Big gasoline tanker-trains hurtled in-bound through the morning dusk. Oil products were precious with the connections to the coast under threat. Everywhere were small Japanese microbuses with baggage-laden racks welded to their roofs. Each was filled to bursting with passengers. Some brave souls clung to the sides or hung from the sliding doors. The road surface was inches from them and the vehicles seemed to have only one speed, which was flat out, but the hangers-on were blasé enough to wave and grin and waggle their tongues at the white woman in the big Landcruiser.

‘Matatus,’ T.P. Costello said. ‘Something between a bus and a taxi. Cheaper than either and a hell of a lot less safe. They go all over the damn country: up mountains, across deserts, through swamps. There’re probably ones trying to make it through the Chaga. Everybloodywhere. Only use in dire emergencies.’ He braked and blared simultaneously as a green Hiace bus cut in front of him. The matatu flashed its hazard warning lights impudently and accelerated. Faces grinned in the rear window. The Lord is Thy Salvation said a sticker on the glass.

Shanties crowded the airport road on each side. The rows of tin shacks and cardboard lean-tos stretched further than Gaby could see in the grey light. The township had been awake and busy since before dawn, as the poor must. Women lined up with plastic demijohns at the community stand-pipes or stood battered margarine cans to boil on wood fires. Some carried sacks of grain on their heads. The sacks read ‘A Gift from the People of the United States’. Some women scrubbed children in the porches of their shacks, others pounded washing and hung it out to dry. Ten thousand trickles of pale blue woodsmoke rose up and mingled in a veil that hung low on the cold morning air.

Children were everywhere. Standing by the side of the road with fingers in their mouths, rolling heavy tractor tyres up the twining alleys, driving away leprotic dogs or mangy goats with well-aimed stones. They were thin and poorly clothed but Gaby did not see one who was not smiling.

She wound down the window and unfolded her visioncam.

‘I’d put that away if I were you,’ T.P. said. ‘Or you’ll end up with a rock up it. Not that it matters to me, but they might miss and I don’t want to have to pay for another new windscreen for this buggy. You think this is bad? I tell you, this is one of the good ones. You should see Pumwani. Jesus. Ten million people: Nairobi’s population doubles every five years. If it was me, I’d take my chances with the Chaga, but the UN says evacuate and so we evacuate. One day they’ll run out of places to evacuate to. It’s not an if, it’s a when, but they can’t see that. This is what happens when you try to apply military thinking to something totally outside its conceptual framework, like an alien colonization.’

Traders had spread plastic sheets on the oily red earth verges and laid out their wares for inspection. Piles of misshaped oranges, unsteady pyramids of Sprite cans, knobs of maize blackened over hubcaps filled with charcoal. Flies were shooed from grilling skewers of meat with whisks of shredded newspaper. Seeing white faces, children sprang up, shimmering bangles looped over their fingers.

‘Karma bracelets, they call them.’ T.P. hooted savagely and swerved around a home-made water cart that was little more than an oil drum on car tyres hauled by an emaciated pony. ‘Hokum for the New Agers. They’re actually optical fibre. Grub the stuff up faster than Kenya Telecom can lay it down. Funny thing is, there are people not even five minutes into the country who’ll stop and buy one. That’s the thing about this place, there’s always someone trying to sell you some damn thing or another.’

A white aircraft appeared over the slum. It came very low, very fast. Its wheels hung down like the talons of a bird of prey. It seemed far too huge and heavy to be kept aloft by those ridiculous wings. Gaby cringed as it passed over the highway in a howl of engines and dropped toward the threshold lights.

‘Was a time when all this was open bush,’ T.P. said. ‘Dead Tommy’s gazelles all over the place. No road sense. Giraffes used to saunter right across this. You stopped for them. Okay. Catechism time.’ He glanced as long at Gaby as the traffic would allow. ‘Rule one. With your complexion, never ever go out without a hat for six months at least. Melanoma you can do without. What’ll you do?’

‘Wear a hat.’

‘That’s correct. Two: you’ve got green eyes, right? Wear shades. All the time.’

‘Don’t need to. I got an eyejob done. Pupils photochromed: it lasts a year.’

‘Not out here it doesn’t. You’ll get six months max with the UV levels at this altitude. Don’t forget to get them redone; crowsfeet you don’t want. Underwear.’

‘Cotton. No artificial fabrics. Don’t breathe.’

‘And what’ll you get?’

‘Thrush if I’m lucky. And no bodysuits either.’

‘That’s correct. And if you do get fungus?’

‘A tampon dipped in live yoghurt.’

‘Not likely ever to try it myself, but that’s what I’m told. Money.’

‘Keep it in your shoe, but always have a hundred shillings handy for mugging money. Avoid conspicuous wealth.’

‘Current scam is threatening you with hypodermics filled with HIV-infected blood. Whether you believe them or not is your call, but don’t trust your jabs. HIV 4 farts in the face of the Pasteur Institute and you’re home in a bodybag in six months tops. Therefore, no unprotected cocks, white, black or any other colour. What’ll you do?’

‘Be a nun.’

‘That’s correct. And be careful about things like going to the dentist, or getting your hair cut, which you should. Half an inch all over.’

‘I’d sooner stick needles in my eyes.’

‘Be permanently hot and sticky then. Your choice. Water.’

‘Don’t trust it, even in hotels. Wash your teeth with bottled. No ice in drinks, peel all fruit and treat salads with extreme caution. And don’t drink beer out of the bottle.’

‘Those two guys.’ He pointed at two men walking hand in hand along the side of the road. ‘Gay or just good friends?’

‘Just good friends. African men have no problem showing same sex physical affection.’

‘Good girl. I think you might actually do here. Of course, culture shock never hits right away. It waits until you think you’re comfortable and feeling you know all there is to know. Then it goes for you. It can kill you. You’re booked in for three days at the PanAfric. Sorry it can’t be longer, but unlike UNECTA, we have to operate to strict commercial principles. Bad news is UNECTA’s pushed the private rental market right up into the ionosphere. Best advice is book into a cheap guesthouse and be prepared for a lot of footwork. What should you do?’

Gaby McAslan did not answer. The sun had burned away the dawn mists. Golden light spread across the tin roofs of the shanties: in the middle distance the towers of Nairobi rose sheer from the encircling townships. Light caught their many windows and kindled them into pillars of fire rising from the dark earth. Gaby lifted her visioncam and videoed through the Landcruiser’s filthy windshield. It would not catch it; video never could catch it. The act of putting a frame around it killed the magic, but perhaps an echo might be held on the disc, enough for a moment of a moment.

They were into the urban traffic now: private cars – 4×4s mostly – and buses, yellow and green behemoths that had never been washed, belching black diesel smoke. Their windows had been replaced by steel bars. T.P. swore expressively as one cut in front of him on a roundabout – keepie leftie in Swahili, he informed Gaby. They passed a big church and a covered market, the national football stadium and the country bus station. They crossed the railway and turned onto a tree-lined highway with parkland on one side and downtown Nairobi on the other. Gaby watched a beautiful, tall black woman in a red onepiece run along the side of the road. She moved with a liquid, unconscious grace that made Gaby feel angular and badly put together. The sun was high now. Shafts of light fell between the buildings into the avenues. T.P. turned the Landcruiser onto Kenyatta Avenue and drove against the flow of the morning traffic up a shallow valley wooded with tired eucalyptus and acacia. Pedestrians thronged the red earth footpaths where the edge of the highway had crumbled away. Posters for toothpaste adorned the bus shelters. T.P. threw the Landcruiser up a curving concrete drive that opened abruptly on the left. It led to an anonymous international-style hotel perched on the hillside.

‘This is you. My advice is go straight to bed and sleep it off. These overnight flights bugger your clock gene. We aren’t expecting you in until tomorrow anyway. We’ll fix you up with an EastAf Teleport account, but it takes a little time, so your PDU won’t be doing much for a day or so.’ He leaned across and opened Gaby’s door. ‘Sorry to have to boot you out like this, but I’ve got the end of the world to attend to.’ As she got out, she heard him mutter, ‘What is it with this place for Irish girls anyway?’

The door slammed. The wheels spun. He was gone. She was alone with an overnight bag and the clothes on her back. Her feet had swollen inside her boots on the flight. A porter in a red fez arrived to carry her bag the twenty feet to Reception.

‘Is this all you have?’ he asked.

The room was comforting and depressing for the same reasons. You can fly faster, higher, further, but the rooms at each end are still the same. This one seemed to have been built by a set designer for Star Trek. A batik of feeding giraffes and the Nairobi LocalNet directory were the only concessions to this being Africa. Gaby arranged her airline booty in the bathroom. There was a big insect in the upper corner of the shower cubicle. Someone had folded the toilet paper into a point. There would be a little foil-wrapped chocolate on the pillow. She would have to be careful not to fall asleep on it. She did not want to have to wash it out of her hair with the big insect watching balefully for a chance to pounce.

She switched on the radio. Bright guitar music poured forth. The DJ rattled out swaggering pop-Swahili. Encouraged, Gaby opened the window to look at her new city. The bustle on Kenyatta Avenue had not abated. The grubby buses swung amiably along; matatus and little moped-tricycles darted impudently between. Everything was way too overloaded. Five men struggled a trolley laden with wood down the road, piling up a long line of traffic as they tried to make a right turn. A convoy of armoured vehicles in UN white came up the road from the city centre. A continuous grumble of engine noise, sirens and the ghosts of diesel and biogas drifted into the room.

In Uhuru Park the trees were dismembered stumps, pillaged for firewood. Beyond the worn, parched green the inner city skyline began abruptly. In the high, strong light the towers that had seemed to glow with a golden inner fire now looked shabby and hard-worked. High above the sky was that clear and infinite kind of blue you see only on the hottest days. It was down at street level that it began to take on the orange haze of photochemical smog.

Gaby fetched the camcorder and framed a tracking panoramic from the elegant white bungalows of the well-to-do across the valley from her to the concrete and glass sunflower of the Kenyatta Centre, headquarters of UNECTAfrique.

‘Hi, Dad,’ she said. ‘I’m here.’

2

Three thousand years of history gives a perspective on human truths. The Chinese are right. It is a curse to live in interesting times. World events have dangerous slip-streams in which many lives can be swept away. Gaby McAslan was one fated to follow the lights in the sky. Saturn’s moons had drawn her to London: the Kilimanjaro Event would drag her across whole years and continents.

Like the death of Kennedy, or Elvis, or the Challenger, the Kilimanjaro Event was one of those points where world and self touch and you can remember exactly where you were and what you were doing.

Gaby McAslan was bouncing around in her singlet and panties on her bed, very full of Australian Semillon-Chardonnay and pretending to avoid the undressing fingers of Sean Haslam, her boyfriend of eight days. He was a part-time Network Media tutor. The other part of his time he freelanced multimedia overlay for Reuters. Therefore Gaby McAslan had uncorked the uncheap Semillon-Chardonnay and invited him to bounce on her bed.

‘Do you have to have the television on?’ he had asked.

‘It’s going to distract you?’ she had asked, smothering him in winy kisses and the mahogany hair that hung to the small of her back.

She had been the distracted one. The late news presenter had had the look of a man asked to read something he could not believe. So had the correspondents in Washington and Dar Es Salaam and at the foot of the mountain. American spysat shots were incontrovertible. On the second pass the resolution was enough to show things the size of a domestic oil tank. Not that there were any oil tanks on Uhuru Peak on the Kibo snow cap. Not that there was anything remotely recognizable there at all after the impact. Gaby had knelt on the bottom of the bed, resting her chin and hands on the carved wooden footboard, watching the news coming out of Africa. She had felt the stretch fabric of her panties slip down across her rump, followed by the inquisitive press and prickle of dick and pubic hair.

‘Go away. This is important.’

‘More important than this?’

‘A hell of a lot more important. What kind of multimedia pro are you anyway?’

The camera had taken a few vertiginous, swooping shots of something that looked a little like a multi-coloured rainforest and a little like a drained coral reef but mostly like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Then the Tanzanian soldier had put his hand over the lens and there was a scuffle of sky and camouflage and the presenter in London was saying that the infection zone (he had seemed uneasy with the hastily devised terminology) was expanding outward from the site where the meteor hit Kibo at an estimated fifty metres per day.

He had then shuffled his papers, looked embarrassed and gone on to the rest of the news.

Suddenly sobered and un-sexed, Gaby went to the Net. Screen after screen of information unfolded from the online news services. Schematics, stills, simulations, animations. Page after page of text. Skywatch satellites hunting for Near Earth Orbiters and Planetbusters had spotted the bolide ten days ago: an atmosphere grazer, a little out of the ordinary in that it had made three complete orbits before entry, but otherwise unremarkable. Its ion trail across the Indian Ocean had been observed by US defence systems but they no longer mistook meteors for MIRV warheads. It had impacted on the peak of Kilimanjaro, near the camp of a German hang-gliding expedition. Storms had closed off the mountain for three days. Then the stories began, from the local Wa-Chagga people and the remnants of the hang-gliding team.

Something was growing up there.

The Tanzanian government might have succeeded in hushing the thing up, had an Earth Resources platform not been ordered to turn its cameras on equatorial East Africa. What NASA saw sent them straight to the White House to ask Mr President if he could ask the Pentagon to loan them a few minutes on the military spy satellites.

The Tanzanians could not have kept it secret for long. Not even the Pentagon could. Not growing at fifty metres per day.

Gaby had not noticed Sean dressing and leaving. After an hour or so she no longer noticed even the images unreeling across her screen. Here was the way to make the world know her name. Her star with her name on it, fallen from heaven. If she was true to it, it would honour her, but she must come to it. That was why it had fallen so far away, so that she would have to prove her worthiness of it. It was patient and enduring – who knew how many billions of miles it had crossed to come to her – but it would not wait forever.

Her tutors were astounded by the enthusiasm with which she addressed her work. They did not see the shining star with her name on it; they saw only her fierce, dark determination. She was racing not against the demands of Network Journalism, but the inexorable growth of the alien flora. When the second biological package came down in the Bismarck Archipelago, to be followed a month later by the Ruwenzori Event, her pace became frenetic. Her tutors told her to slow down. She could not. The United Nations was out there now, in the form of UNECTA, poking and prying and sampling and sniffing her alien rainforest. She had to get there before it was all named and numbered and known and there was no mystery left for her to explain.

Time and inexperience frustrated her. Trapped in grey London, she wished she were the Hundred Foot Woman who could push the dirty buildings apart until new, strange life sprang through the cracks in the street and the light of a brighter, kinder sun shone through the tear in the sky.

Her semester project on UNECTA as agent of Western industrial neo-colonialism earned her a summer placement with SkyNet Multimedia News. It was the first step southward to the plains of East Africa. That summer she determined that she would give SkyNet no possible grounds for declining her a job when she graduated in a year’s time. She grew pale and vampirish while the rest of her class flourished in sunny climates. She cultivated relationships, not all of which ended in bed. She shook hands. She did lunches. In the end, she succeeded.

Her father and Reb came to the graduation. First of all her year, she went up to collect her degree. When her father jokingly referred to her ruthlessness, she was startled. She had never thought of herself so. She was a frustrated visionary. The next day she moved into the glass-walled menagerie of SkyNet’s London office, among the architectural wet-dreams of Docklands. It was a Junior Compiler’s post in the Economics division, but it was another step south.

The Chaga continued advancing outward at fifty metres a day. Gaby charted its progress on a big map of Africa on the wall of her flat. She stuck photographs round the map: elephants with the snows of Kilimanjaro behind them; aerial views of the great disc of coloured mosaic dropped onto the dun landscapes of northern Tanzania. Neither friends nor her brief lovers were allowed to see her little shrine to the Chaga. It was not that she feared them thinking she was sad, it was that it was hers and hers alone. Others would profane it.

Beneath the towers of London she manoeuvred, she manipulated, she percolated up through the dense hierarchy of SkyNet like ground water rising in an Artesian basin. Opportunities opened; promotions appeared: she let them go. They were too easy, she was not ready. There was still the possibility of failure. That would have killed her. She would move only when victory was assured, though every day’s wait was a tap of the needle another millimetre deeper under her thumb-nail.

Six hundred and forty taps. Six hundred and forty silent chokes of frustration. And because she had honoured her star, it honoured her. The position was a junior one: had it not been in the Nairobi Station it would have been a demotion and she would have been fatally over-qualified. It was the third step, the sideways step that took you over seas and mountains and deserts to the land of heart’s desire.

She put in her application, called in all her overdue markers and went home to Ireland. The answer was there on the Watchhouse’s computers as she came in through the door to be greeted by leaping, wagging black Paddy and weeping, hugging Reb and Hannah.

She had a week to get visas, injections, do research, pack bags, buy a new wardrobe and book tickets. Her father uprated her Kenya Airways booking to executive class.

‘If you’re not coming back, then you must go in style,’ he said. ‘It is better to travel first class than to arrive.’ Then he turned away quickly so that Gaby would not be embarrassed to see how he felt about that.

He gave her a present at the departure gate. It was wrapped in dark blue paper patterned with stars and moons and ringed planets.

‘Open it when you’re airborne,’ he ordered, then hugged her and kissed her in a burly, beardy way and pushed her through the security check. When the little feederjet had levelled off and Northern Ireland was an edge of white foam on black rocks, she unwrapped the present. It was a minidisc viewcamera; a beautiful little thing, solar-charged, top of the range. Stuffed underneath it was a Manchester United scarf. It can get cold at 2000 metres, even on the Equator, said the note. Love Reb.

3

The rhythmic knocking woke her. Tap-ta-ta-tap tap tap. Tap-ta-ta-tap tap tap. Tap-ta-ta-tap tap tap.

Gaby came out of sleep with a start. Purple twilight filled the room. She did not know if it was evening or morning twilight. She did not know what room this was in which she found herself, or how she was in a very big bed covered with a sticky sheet. She did not know why it was so hot.

She fumbled out of bed and gingerly opened the door. On the old-fashioned carpet stood her suitcase. She looked left, she looked right. There was no sign of who had put it here and knocked her into wakefulness, and it was a very long corridor. She quickly stepped outside and retrieved the case. The baggage labels were exceedingly interesting. While she had slept her suitcase had been to Mauritius and back.

4

Gaby McAslan came out of jet lag wanting a drink. Food would have been good, but you met more valuable people in hotel bars than restaurants. Hemingway kitsch. Zebra skins on the walls, sad antelope heads begging sympathy. Spears and shields and photographs of great white hunters and their memsahibs squatting on the running-boards of ancient Bentleys, dead things at their feet. Wicker tables and chairs of course. Black staff, white clients. Feeling conspicuous in fashionable silk blouse, jodhpurs and riding boots, Gaby McAslan approached the bar. A short, solid woman with shoulder-length dull blonde hair sat on a stool talking with the barman. She wore a sleeveless plaid shirt, combat cut-offs and biker boots. She looked the only other professional in a room of Chaga hangers-on.

‘Excuse me, what do people drink around here?’ she asked the barman.

‘They drink this,’ the blonde woman said. She pushed a bottle along the bar. It had an elephant on the label. ‘Only beer with picture of factory on bottle. Old joke.’ She spoke with a pronounced Slavic accent. ‘I get you one. Moses.’

The barman flipped up a dew-dropped bottle and uncapped it with his teeth.

‘Slainte agus saol,’ Gaby said to her new drinking companion.

They clinked bottles.

‘Big cocks and vodka,’ the blonde woman said.

The beer tasted nothing at all like elephant piss. Drinking from the bottle. Less than twenty-four hours in the place, and you are already sinning against T.P.’s catechism.

‘You have funny accent,’ said the woman. ‘Know most English accents, but yours …’

‘Northern Ireland. Norren iron, in the local dialect.’

‘Norren iron,’ the small woman said, making it sound almost Japanese.

‘Russian?’ Gaby ventured.

‘Fuck, no!’ the small woman exploded. She ripped open her plaid shirt. Underneath was a much-washed muscle-top with a picture of an ugly jet aircraft taking off and something in Cyrillic. ‘Siberian. Proud of it. Never forget.’

Sibirsk, that was what was written on the T-shirt. Part of your research, Gaby McAslan. First generation Aeroflot offspring. They have the air transport franchise for UNECTA. They almost turned you into a five hundred kilometre per hour fireball this morning.

‘I had a close encounter with one of your comrades coming into Kenyatta airport,’ Gaby said.

The Siberian woman sneered.

‘Bloody 142s. Need five kays to get down and another ten to get up. Boring boring boring. Only thing you can do on 142 is drink whole damn flight.’ She patted the aircraft on her T-shirt: a stubby, high-wing, T-tail jet with a big engine mounted over each wing-root. ‘An72 F. Now that is airplane. Take them anyplace. Anyplace at all. This town full of old white hunter wankers; talk all about old days when they go all over place in Cessnas. Cessnas. Toy airplanes. Model kits with engines. I tell you anywhere you take pissy Cessna, I take An72; proper airplane.’

‘You fly.’

The Siberian woman smiled with a mixture of pride and modesty that Gaby recognized and admired. She had time for people who did their work, however lofty or low, proudly and well. It was a small sacrament, like those monks who served God by washing dishes. Dishonesty she despised; those who bought and sold, or were parasitic on others, and did not create. Only people who did something were truly human. Gaby felt herself warming to this Siberian flier.

‘Gaby McAslan.’

The blonde woman stuck on the surname glottal several times.

‘Well, I am pleased to meet you, however you say your name. I am Oksana Mikhailovna Telyanina, of Irkutsk.’

The barman lined up two more elephants. They clinked bottles and drank to Siberian/Ulster friendship. She drinks and dresses like a gay man, Gaby thought.

‘You are here for Chaga, yes? Of course, everyone is here for Chaga, one way or other. Tourist or worker?’

‘Worker. I’m with SkyNet. Start tomorrow.’

‘Good people. Jake Aarons, he is good man. Good man. Big waste. Ah, they are all good. Better than fucking UNECTA – well, Administration who tell us where we can and cannot fly.’

‘Death to administrators.’

‘And accountants. Up against wall, boom boom boom.’

They drank to the mass liquidation of the administrative and accounting classes. The empty bottles lined up along the bar. Glass elephants on parade.

‘What do you think it is?’ Gaby asked, ‘the Chaga?’

The little Siberian woman shrugged expressively.

‘You mean, another planet? I don’t know. Easy to talk about other planets, other worlds out in cosmos, make stories about them, make movies when they are far away. When you can see it, touch it, walk through it – fly over it – is harder to believe. Too close, understand? Maybe is one big big movie set. Industrial Light and Magic, all that. I tell you, right here in this place, is very hard to believe in aliens and other worlds, yes? Oh, meant to say, I love your hair.’ She gently stroked Gaby’s hair.

‘Blood of the Celts flows in me,’ Gaby said, touched.

‘Blood of Finno-Ugarics flows in me. Well, my father’s side, generation or so back. Mighty people, long before damn Russians. Proud people. Look.’ She pulled down the ragged neck of her Sibirsk T-shirt to reveal a tattoo of two intertwined circles on her right breast. ‘Apprentice shaman. Or should it be sha-woman?’

‘Sha-person? No shit?’

‘No shit, Gahbee UmmicAzlan. Father had no sons, so passed on mysteries to eldest daughter. Me. Oksana Mikhailovna. Already, I can fly. No problem! In time, I will heal the sick, see into human hearts, speak with voice of forest, take on spirits and shapes of animals. See.’ She moved the stretched neckline. The left breast bore a wolf-mask tattoo. ‘Maybe is why I cannot believe in aliens, other planets, colonization, all that. I know earth is still strong, can still surprise us. Most of all here in Africa, where everything is born. Ah! Moses! You are great man. What you doing afterwards?’ The great Moses set them up and kept setting them up and the two women kept drinking them and they talked men and money and football and tried to teach each other mouthfuls of Finno-Ugaric and Irish which of course ended in beer spitting and laughing because they only taught each other to say dirty things.

‘Go to bed, Gaby McAslan,’ Oksana Telyanina said as the line of bottles reached the end of the bar. ‘You have big day tomorrow: new city, new job, new workmates. Need sleep. Me too. Have to fly tomorrow, early.’

‘After all this?’

Oksana turned her right forearm up. She tapped a swelling under her wrist.

‘Diffusion pump. Cleans it out of blood as fast as I drink it. Piss pure alcohol. Tomorrow I fly to Ruwenzori sober as judge. Soberer.’

Ruwenzori. The Mountains of the Moon. The white on the map of Darkest Africa. Terra Incognita. Since the Kilimanjaro Event, the cartographers had been forced to redraw those unknown regions marked Here be Dragons.

‘We do this again, yes?’ Oksana said. ‘When I get back, God knows when. Me, I am only here because I am babooning. Moving out of place so friend can fiki-fiki, yes?’, She made thrusting gestures with thumb. ‘You on EastAf Teleport?’

‘SkyNet’s fixing it. You’ll have to leave a message so I can find you; I’m only booked in here for a couple of days. After that, I don’t know where I’ll be.’

‘I will find you. You’ll see. Ah, damn. Moses, are you closing that thing up already? Is too soon. Maybe we have one more, yes? Moses!’

His gleaming teeth showed no obvious signs of distress at having uncapped fourteen bottles of Tusker.

‘Big cocks and vodka!’

‘Big cocks and vodka!’ Gaby McAslan agreed.

5

She woke bright, sober and decided to walk to work. Any town she visited, she needed to walk over, claim it like an animal marking its territory with a rub of musk. She crossed Uhuru Park and the highway, steering by the open flower of the Kenyatta Centre rising out of darkness into the morning light. Something growing, Gaby thought.

She videoed the big bronze UNECTAfrique horns-and-mountain colophon in the centre of the plaza. People of all colours and races and nations hurried past her, all on the business of the Chaga. As she was. All part of this magnificent machine, unfolding the heart of a great mystery.

She walked on.

In three intersections she was lost. Every turning she took brought her back to the same Indian bookstore. Time was ticking away. Taxis would have been flagged down but they did not seem to prowl these streets. Nor were there any policemen to bribe for directions. It would have to be a choice between the homeboys in street-fashionable flares and patch leather jackets hanging around their good friend’s shoeshine stand, or the smart-casual, studenty types waiting for the pedestrian lights. She remembered T.P. Costello’s pointed warnings about HIV-infected hypodermics.

‘Excuse me, could you tell me the way to Tom M’boya Street?’

The tallest of the student-types smiled broadly.

‘Certainly. In fact, we are going that way ourselves. We could walk with you; it is not really safe for a white woman to be on the streets on her own.’

As they walked they asked her questions: was she on holiday or was she working here, where did she come from, how long had she been here, had she ever been to Africa before, what did she think of Kenya so far? Gaby’s answers were interrupted by the arrival of a friend every hundred metres or so, necessitating lengthy greetings and handshakings. Within half a kilometre, what had been three were now six. They did not seem to be making very fast progress in the direction of the SkyNet offices.

‘This is a quicker way to go,’ said the tall, bearded one with the expensive clothes who asked all the questions. Friend number eight joined the party. ‘I am wondering,’ the bearded one went on, ‘if maybe, like we are helping you, you can help us. You are a journalist, an educated woman, you will understand our problem.’

The problem unfolded over the next half kilometre. A good friend of theirs, a political science student, had got himself into trouble by speaking out against corruption in UNECTA. ‘As you know, the Americans clap their hands and our beloved government dances. They will not allow any criticism of the UN presence in our country – and so our friend is in grave danger. His life has been threatened, his wife and family have been visited, if you understand what I mean. Even we are taking a grave risk in talking to you. You will be all right, you work for a Western news agency, they will not touch you.’

‘What do you want me to do? Run a story?’

‘That would put him in more danger, I am afraid,’ said the bearded student. ‘His only chance is to get away with his family, go south to Mozambique where he will be safe to carry on the struggle. There is a boat he can catch from Mombasa; unfortunately, these days, no one goes anywhere without magendo.’ He rubbed fingers against thumb, the universal gesture of black money. ‘He needs five thousand shillings to get his family out. Only five thousand shillings for a new life.’

‘We would not ask you for that much,’ said a flat-nosed, very black man who had not spoken before. ‘Five hundred shillings would be a good start. It would get him and his family to Mombasa.’

Gaby stopped on the street. The eight men stopped with her and stood in a circle around her. They felt very big, very close. She knew, they knew, it was a scam. But nobody said so.

‘I don’t have that much,’ she lied, twitching her toes in her left boot.

‘That does not matter,’ said Flat Nose. ‘You have traveller’s cheques?’

‘No,’ she lied again. ‘Not on me. Back at the hotel.’

‘A credit card, then. You are a journalist, you will have a credit card. You can get money out of a cash machine. There is one not far. We will take you to it.’

There is a fatal passivity in being conned, Gaby realized. You know it is happening, yet you go along with it, you play it to the end, because it is the only way to make it stop. They know you will pay them their five hundred shillings to be free of them and they will go back to their street corner and tell the same tale to the next mark who comes along asking the way to Tom M’boya Street. It would not have been so bad if they had simply cut the straps of her bag and roared off on a moped. That would have been an opportunity seen and taken in an instant; there would have been nothing personal about it, not like this slow, drawing out of your trust and then gang-raping it.

There was a dispenser she could use. As they had said, it was not far. She fumbled her card out of her bag. A white man in Chinos and a faded denim shirt was coming down the street. She did not want him to see the final sting. He was looking at her. He adjusted her course toward her. He was smiling at her. Beaming.

‘Honey! There you are!’

The stranger swept her off her feet and kissed her hard on the mouth.

‘When you didn’t turn up, I came looking. I know how easy it is to get lost in this town.’ He had an American accent. He seized Gaby’s hand and drew her away from the hustlers. ‘Excuse me, guys, hope you don’t mind, it’s just we’re running a little late.’

He did not let go of Gaby’s hand until they were around two corners.

‘Jesus. Whoever you are, thank you.’

‘Was it the Rwandan refugee story?’ the American asked. He was averagely tall, averagely built, averagely handsome. His accent was averagely mid-Western. But his eyes had the same blue twinkle that had made Paul Newman Gaby’s first true love, and that redeemed all the averages into superlatives.

Gaby could still taste his kiss.

‘It was the student-on-the-run-from-the-govemment story. How did you know?’

‘They got me too. Fresh off the plane and they scammed me for a hundred dollars. I was so ashamed I couldn’t admit it to anyone for a month.’

Gaby shuddered as if they had laid hands on her body. She could understand such shame.

‘All I did was ask the way the Tom M’boya Street. I reckoned they looked safer than the boys in funny outfits.’

‘Like something from an old blaxploitation movie?’ Gaby nodded. ‘Should have asked them. They’re watekni; they might have flirted a bit but they wouldn’t have tried to fleece you. The Sheriffs insist on good manners in their posse members.’

‘Watekni?’

‘Semi-legal hacker gangs. Information brokers. Cyberpunk caste. They take Shaft as role model, but they’re sound enough. Tom M’boya Street.’ They had walked a hundred metres and two right turns. Gaby could see the intersection where she had been picked up by the hustlers. It was less than half a block away.

‘Where abouts?’ asked the American.

‘Right here.’ They were at the door of SkyNet News. She put her card back in her bag and found her identity pass. When she looked up, the American in the Chinos and denim shirt had vanished as utterly as if he had never existed. Paul Newman as angel?

She did not even know his name.

Gaby McAslan fastened her identity to her shirt and trotted up the steps. She was only ten minutes late.

6

Videodiary entry: March 20 2008

Pan around a very large room filled with desks, workstations and people. The camera is stopped down for interior fluorescents: the windows blaze with light. If there was such a thing as smell-o-vision, there would be a strong aroma of coffee. Over the high level of ambient noise, Gaby McAslan’s voice can be heard.

Well, this is it, Pa. Top of the world. Well, seventh floor, SkyNet News Nairobi, English Language section. Germans are next the window, Scandinavians are back against the wall, which is kind of glum but satisfies their national characteristic. That glassed in office-ette is where Great White Chief T.P. Costello presides over us all. He’s supposed to be lovable and hugable and everyone’s big daddy: can’t say I’ve found that yet. Maybe he’s still pissed at me for being late on my first day, but professional instincts tell me it’s something more, though I don’t know what I’ve done to offend him.

The camera moves to a tall, dark-haired white man in his middle years. He is thin, his face is all planes and angles, his hair is suspiciously less grey than it should be, but it may be due to the personal energy that shines out of him even when he is sitting on a desk drinking coffee. He is smartly dressed. On the window ledge behind him is a row of unattractive trophies and awards. He notices Gaby surreptitiously videoing him, visibly straightens, smartens and waggles his fingers: hello camera.

This man of course needs no introduction, being the one and only Jake Aarons, SkyNet’s chief East Africa correspondent and darling of a million late-evening news special reports. Please note that, video-evidence to the contrary, he does in fact exist from the waist down. Apparently there is a cute little Somali boy who can personally testify to this same fact, but one shouldn’t repeat office bitchery. Sexual peccadilloes aside, he gets the angles on the news that no one else gets: no one, however seems to get angles on him, which I suspect is how he likes it. Something of a man of mystery, our Jake, despite – or is it because of? – his very public persona. OK, Jake, you can stop posing for the camera now.

An olive-skinned woman in her late thirtysomethings is leaning over a researcher’s desk. Her hair is Latin black, as are her eyes. There is something predatory in the way she dominates the researcher’s space. She is expensively and smartly dressed, too expensively and smartly for Nairobi. She wears perhaps too much silver.

Abigail Santini. On-line features editrix, and my boss. She does not like me. That’s all right, because I don’t like her, and it’s always refreshing to be mutual about these things. At least I have good reasons not to like her. One: she insists on being called ‘Abby’ and there is not room in this office for two names ending in ‘aby’. Two: she enjoys the power of executive authority with none of the creative responsibilities of those she lords it over. Three: she looks good, and damn well knows it, and has Mediterranean features that tan beautifully and never freckle, burn and then peel, and has a classic aquiline nose of the type that built the glory that was Rome and not the snub thing of a race whose idea of civilization was stealing each other’s cattle. Now you can see why I don’t like her. What I can’t understand is why she shouldn’t like me.

The eye of the lens comes to rest on two black men at a video editing suite drinking coffee. One is small, wiry, bearded; he is sitting on a chair. The other is so extraordinarily tall you can tell it even though he is sitting on the edge of the desk. It is quite obvious that they are of different tribes, different races, and are the closest of friends. The tall one sees Gaby’s lens on him and waggles his tongue and makes a phallic gesture with his fist.

My heroes. My buddies. My adopted family. Tembo and Faraway. Cameraman and communications engineer. SkyNet’s Number One team. They grew up within five miles of each other up in the north near Lake Victoria, but Tembo is Luhya and Faraway is Luo. This apparently is important. Something to do with Bantus as opposed to Nilo-Hamitics.

Faraway’s name is self-explanatory. Even among a race of basketball players he is exceptional. Tembo means ‘elephant’ in Swahili. Memory like an elephant? I ask. No, hung like an elephant, Faraway tells me with great delight. Now wonder he’s never been able to steal Tembo’s wife away from him, he says. Faraway is a career flirt. He has turned sexual harassment into high art. His life is ruled by the politics of cool and, he says, his dick. He cannot meet a woman without trying to talk her into his bed. Neither they, or he, take him seriously. That he occasionally succeeds surprises him most of all. He tells me I am a demon-woman sent from hell to tempt him into unspeakable sin because of my red hair and green eyes. There is only one way he knows to exorcise the demon in me, he says, which involves pelvis-pumping and a lascivious grin. Dream on, Faraway.

On the other hand, Tembo is good livin’, as we say back home. He’s a born-again Christian. He directs the choir in St Stephen’s church. It’s good enough to make an atheist believe in God, Faraway says, with genuine pride in his friend. He has two wee girls so gorgeous you’d want to eat them; he shows his photographs at the drop of a hat. In his lunch-hour he’s always editing videos he’s shot of them.

For some reason they have decided to teach me to be African. Unlike most of the people here, they think I have the capacity. Maybe it’s because one of the first things I did here was put my name down for the SkyNet football team – only four whites and no women. Tembo is a useful left winger, and Faraway, by virtue of his height, is goalkeeper, which he might actually be good at if he stopped showing off and chatting up women spectators long enough to actually stop a ball. Problem is they can’t decide whether I should be a Luhya African or a Luo African.

I get my real lessons in how to be African at my new lodgings. The barman at the PanAfric recommended it: Mrs Kivebulaya, the proprietrix, is a cousin of a cousin of something of his, and likes Irish girls. And what’s more, it’s just up the hill on First N’Gong Avenue. I didn’t think I could settle in something that calls itself the Episcopalian Guesthouse, but Mrs Kivebulaya runs a trim ship. OK, so I rode up in the taxi with that night’s dinner – a goat – tied up in the back seat, but there’s a pool, the gardens are quiet and good to work in, though missionaries speak a completely different kind of English to mine, one full of bishops and rural deaneries and Theological Education by Extension.

It’s the little, trivial things that I miss most about home. Things like buying sanitary towels, or proper chocolate that hasn’t gone musty in old-fashioned purple foil wrappers. Diet Coke, in cans, not bottles where you pay more for the deposit on the bottle than its contents. Rock’n’roll. For the first ten minutes Kenyan radio sounds like the Greatest Thing You’ve Ever Heard, and then after that you’d kill to be able to sing along to the ‘Mama Mia, Let Me Go’ bit of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Late-night shopping. In a mall. I miss a horizon. I don’t like feeling I’m in the middle of a vast tract of high, flat land. I want terrain. Like the sea around the Watchhouse; even if you couldn’t see it, you always knew it was there. I want landmarks. Is this homesickness?

Mrs Kivebulaya does her best to make me feel at home – hospitality is her mission from God; I can agree with that – with cosy chats and the best coffee you have ever tasted at the table in the garden where I like to work. She worships with coffee and banana cake. Her most important contribution to my happy and successful integration into a new land, new culture and new job are the tales of the bizarre and wonderful that seem to be everyday life here in Kenya. Yesterday she told me about a friend of a relative of an acquaintance of hers who is a complete rude boy and a glue sniffer. Seems he broke into the Yellow Imp Glue Factory on Jogoo Road for the biggest high of his career, leaned too far over a vat and fell in. Overcome by fumes he climbed out, lay down on the floor to recover and passed out. Next morning the staff found him stuck fast to the floor and had to cut him free with a power saw. This morning over breakfast she told me about a group of Christians returning from a rally by canoe across Lake Victoria. They encountered a boatload of rude boys out for a pleasure cruise with their girlfriends, who jeered at them and told them they were no good Christians, they had no faith, going in canoes, why, they should walk on the lake like their God. Valiantly responding to the challenge, fifteen leaped up and stepped over the side. ‘They sank like stones,’ Mrs K. said, rocking with laughter, which reminds you of a sailing ship in heavy weather. ‘They were pulling bodies out of the water for days. Six were never accounted for, but there are a lot of crocodiles in Lake Victoria.’ There seems to be no end to her supply of stories of the bizarre and wonderful. Which is a good thing, as I’ve just sold them to T.P. as an idea for a series of humorous (or just plain surreal) end-of-news fillers: ‘And Finally’ tales from the Nairobi Station. It may not be much, but it’s another step closer to the Chaga. Oops. Captain on the bridge. Better make as if I’m writing up these text overlays of Jake’s interview with UNECTA’s Chief of Operations.

7

‘It’s the hardest thing in the world to get a good picture of,’ said Tembo, passing the bowl of irio. As part of his Africanization lessons, he had invited Gaby to dinner with his family at their house out by Limuru. As extended Uncle to Sarah and Etambele, Tembo’s daughters, Faraway had of course been invited too.

It was a good house in a good neighbourhood. SkyNet paid its senior cameramen well. It had a verandah, this was where they ate. Moths fluttered around the tin candle-lanterns. The dark garden twittered with night insects. Screening trees muted the traffic; the air was warm and smelled of Africa, which is not one smell but many smells: woodsmoke and red earth and fruit and shit and night-blooming flowers, but is more than the sum of all the things that make it up, as the perfume of a woman is more than the perfume of the scent she puts on.

Faraway uncapped a beer and passed the bottle to Gaby.

‘I do not just mean the actual physical difficulties,’ Tembo continued.

‘Like bribing your way past the soldiers,’ Faraway said heathenly.

‘Like the way it attacks plastics, which means your camera breaking out in flowers if you do not wrap it up carefully. But that is only part of it. It is just a hard thing to get a good image of. For a start, under the canopy there is very little light; and then, what do you video? It looks the same wherever you point the camera. And there are things in there so different from what we understand as living that we find it hard to comprehend them. We cannot see them like we see a tree and know what it is and what it does, what the bits we cannot see will look like. Everything is different: what is it the people at Ol Tukai have worked out? They have catalogued over fifteen thousand different species in the Chaga. And of course, every time you go back, they have changed into something else.’

Mrs Kivebulaya’s ‘And Finally’ stories had won Gaby critical appreciation, grudging acknowledgement by T.P. Costello and a place at a table in the Thorn Tree Bar of the New Stanley Hotel, where the real journalists went to drink, but those were not the thing for which she had come to Africa. That thing was still denied her. She worked in the Chaga every day, in the gigabytes of images, documents, reports, simulations stored in archives. She knew all that was humanly knowable about the air-reefs, the pseudo-corals, the hand-trees, the things that looked like marine radiolaria for which no one had yet invented a name; except how they felt, how they smelled, how they tasted. She felt trapped beneath Nairobi’s smog layer while her star burned bright in the south. Tembo and Faraway could not understand her impatience. ‘It will wait,’ they said. ‘It is not going anywhere. Well, actually it is, and in the best direction, towards you.’

Tembo’s children arrived on either side of Gaby with dishes of chicken.

‘You are to have the gizzard,’ said Sarah, the older one. Both were beautiful and serious and funny. ‘It is always kept for the guest of honour.’

Gaby looked at Faraway to see if he had put his extended nieces up to a joke on the poor ignorant m’zungu. If so, he was playing it mightily deadpan.

‘Actually, I don’t know what a chicken gizzard looks like,’ she said. ‘In my country we don’t eat them.’ Etambele, the younger girl, whose name meant ‘Early Evening, Just After Tea-Time’, which was the exact time she was born, looked amazed and whispered something to Sarah.

‘My sister wants to know if your hair is real,’ Sarah said.

‘Etambele, don’t ask rude questions about our guest,’ her mother said. She was a small, silent woman, very beautiful in traditional dress, but peripheral to this men’s world of news and affairs and events.

‘I know how I could find out,’ Faraway said, which was as much as he could get away with in the company of a Christian family.

‘It’s real,’ Gaby said to the staring sisters. ‘It goes all the way down my back. I haven’t had it cut in seven years, which is older than you are, Etambele.’ The girls went round-eyed in astonishment. Gaby let them touch her hair. They giggled and fled to fetch the sweet potatoes.

Chicken gizzard was very much better than she had feared.

‘UNECTA is re-evaluating its security position,’ Tembo said. ‘They are getting scared about the refugee problem. Sooner or later, someone will decide to disbelieve what UNECTA is telling them about the Chaga, and reckon it is a better chance than the squatter camps. That is why they are thinking about military patrols inside the Chaga.’

‘That is not because of the refugees,’ Faraway said. ‘That is because they are afraid of what the safari squads might find.’

‘Safari squads?’ Gaby asked.

‘They operate out of the Tacticals, the gangs that rule the townships,’ Faraway said. ‘They go in, they find things, they bring them out. They laugh in the face of United Nations quarantines. That is why they want to put soldiers into the Chaga, to stop them. If the United Nations can show that those who go in deep never return, then people in the squatter camps will say better Pumwani than the Chaga. It will work for a time. But the day will come when the people start to say, better the Chaga than Pumwani. It has to come, my friend. It has to come. The United Nations cannot stop the Chaga, neither can it evacuate ten million people.’

‘More, by then,’ Tembo said.

‘What will you do, Tembo?’ Gaby asked, seeing his wife in her beautiful dress, seeing his children on their too-high seats with their too-big cutlery.

‘I will trust SkyNet to look after us.’

‘You trust SkyNet, I will trust myself,’ Faraway said. The beers were making him outspoken.

‘You’d take your chances with the Chaga?’

M’zungu, in the end everyone will have to take their chances with the Chaga. Maybe even you. Just because the packages have all come down within three hundred kilometres of the Equator does not mean they always will. The very next one could come down in Paris, or New York, or even Ireland. And why does everyone assume that the Chaga is confined to the tropics? Maybe it will just keep growing, out of Africa, across the desert, across Europe, over the pole until there is nothing left, only Chaga, and we are all swinging from the trees and playing knucklebones with the aliens.’

‘Faraway, please, you are scaring the children,’ Tembo’s wife said softly, but firmly.

‘If there are aliens,’ Tembo said.

‘My friend here has a theological problem with intelligences from other worlds,’ Faraway said. Mrs Tembo and the children had cleared away the main course dishes. A hiss of seething oil and the smell of deep-frying finger-bananas from the kitchen louvres meant dessert. ‘Given that God created the aliens behind the Chaga, the question is, were they created in a state of grace, or are they fallen creatures, like us? If they are angels, then they run the risk of falling, should they come into contact with sinners like us. Me, I like the idea of being responsible for the fall of an angel. If they are already fallen, then do they have a means of salvation, or must we evangelize them?’

‘A Chaga Messiah?’ Gaby asked. The bananas arrived, piled high on serving plates, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

‘There are no aliens,’ Tembo said a little impatiently. He was accustomed to his friend’s boasting, he did not like to see him massage his big male ego at the dinner table, in front of guests and family.

‘If they could put an entire ecology into something the size of a small matatu, I am sure there is room for a couple of aliens in the ash tray,’ Faraway said, undeterred. Mrs Tembo’s cooking succeeded in silencing him.

The children were made ready for bed while coffee brewed. They came to say goodnight. Faraway tousled their hair and hugged them beerily. Tembo kissed them. Gaby showed them photographs she had brought of her sisters and dogs and father.

‘This is the house where I grew up, and here we all are in front of it. This was taken the day I left to go to London to learn to be a reporter.’

‘Did your mother take the photograph?’ Sarah asked.

‘No, it was my father’s lady friend. My mother died a long time ago, when I was quite young,’ Gaby said, and then folded the photographs quickly away before they let loose things that had no proper place here among hosts and friends. ‘Good night, sleep tight and don’t let the bugs bite,’ she said to the children. They giggled appreciatively.

Gaby’s offer to help with the dishes was politely but firmly turned down.

‘It is woman’s work, and tonight you are a honorary man,’ Tembo said.

You guys have a lot to learn about feminism, Gaby thought as coffee came round. And you girls too. Faraway produced Russian cigarettes. Gaby took one.

‘I did not know you smoked.’

‘Only after dinner.’

‘I smoke after sex,’ he said.

Gaby was listening to the sound of the mother in the bedroom singing her children to sleep with a song a thousand years old. It made her feel very close to and very far from home at the same time. The candles burned low in the tin lanterns. The traffic noise lessened. The honorary men talked work, about Jake Aarons, whom they all liked, and Abigail Santini, whom no one liked, and T.P. Costello, whom everyone liked but Gaby, because she said he did not like her. Tembo stared at his coffee grounds as if trying to divine the future from them, then said, ‘There is shadow on his memory. I do not know it all, it was back before I joined SkyNet, when he was East African station chief for Irish News Services. There was a woman, an Irish woman, like you. She disappeared into the Chaga. That is all I know, but I think you remind him of things he would sooner forget, Gaby.’

She smoked another Russian cigarette and listened to the rattle of insect wings against the lantern glass.

‘Did he love her, Tembo?’

‘He has not said so.’

‘He loved her. So that’s why he won’t put me in front of a camera.’

‘Is that what you really want?’

Gaby’s frustration blew up in her like the candle flames when the night wind blew across the eaves and through the lanterns’ ventilation slits.

‘What I want is to do something. Make something of my own, that I have experienced with my own senses. Not someone else’s report, someone else’s technical brief, someone else’s image or experience. Not someone else’s stories about cabinet ministers disappearing and reappearing under the name of “Mr Shit”, or weddings in country churches that turn into tribal warfare because someone can’t stop farting during the marriage vows.’

‘Those are good stories, Gaby,’ Faraway said.

‘Yes, they are good stories, but they aren’t my stories. They come to me; I want to go and get them. It doesn’t have to be video reportage; just as long as it means me acting for once and not reacting.’ She took another of Faraway’s cigarettes and lit from a candle lantern. ‘It’s like an old story my dad made up for me when I was wee. There was one of our cats – we had five – who used to stare up the chimney all the time. My dad told me that he was waiting for the night when a voice would come down the chimney saying, “The King of the Cats is dead! the King of the Cats is dead!” On that night, when that voice came, he would leap up, say, “Then I am King of the Cats!” and run up the chimney and over the rooftops to claim his crown. That was why he was looking up the chimney all the time, waiting for the call.

‘I feel like that stupid cat.’

Faraway exhaled a plume of smoke and looked long at Tembo before speaking.

‘What if I were to say that the King of the Cats is a personal friend of mine?’

‘Be careful, my friend,’ Tembo said.

‘To get stories, you need to know what is going on before anyone else, friend Gaby. To know what is going on before anyone else, you need good information. I know a man – we are the same tribe, almost the same village – who deals in that kind of information: hard to get, useful. Valuable.’

‘Are we talking about the Sheriffs?’ Gaby asked.

Every day on her way in to the office she saw people in their hundreds crowd the dirt streets of the slums around the soft, silent Mercedes of the software brokers as they did their day’s hiring. The first time she had seen it she had stopped and opened her visioncam as the cars disappeared beneath the surge of bodies, hands snatching for the slips of paper with the password for the day of whatever western life insurance or savings and loan company needed data processors. The informational superhighway had promised so much to Africa, and delivered only the daily scramble to do the world’s paperwork because an African data processor cost less than a European or East Asian. The combination of the primeval and the technological had disturbed Gaby. She had watched the hired minibuses arrive to take the few away to the warehouses and enough money for a week’s food, if they worked hard. The others had returned to their homes and children. This was the public face of the East African Teleport. It was no wonder that so many turned away from it, seeing a better, or at least more glamorous future with its private face: the posses. You saw the kids everywhere, the boys in flares and long-collared shirts and platform soles, the girls in leatherette and nylon. They looked cool, they looked street, but they were merely the runners, the dealers, the minders and enforcers. The Sheriffs, known to most only by their titles, held the power, but they were no more the posses than their boys and girls. The true posse, like the True Church, was invisible, spiritual, virtual. It was the boy in Pumwani whose teenage sister sells herself on the street to pay for the deck and connection charges that will buy them both a way up and out. It was the girl living on the houseboat on Lake Victoria with a mother who tells her she is useless and a father who fucks her and grandparents who sit around all day staring at her and nine siblings who eat her food and push her out of her space, the one who dreams of some day pulling on the leather jacket and sliding on the RayBans and becoming a Name in a nameless city. It was the Likoni ferry-man who comes home every night to hang out on the cybernetic street corner until the dawn comes up out of India, high-fiving with dudes you meet only in dreams; it was the woman whose children have all been lost to religion, crack or HIV IV who finds a bigger market-place in which to sell her goods and swap gossip. It was all of these, bound together in a virtual community – the posse – under the patronage and protection of their Sheriff.

‘We are talking the Sheriff of Sheriffs,’ Faraway said.

‘Mombi would disagree with you,’ Tembo said. His wife appeared with fresh coffee. She looked suspicious: seditious talk on her verandah.

‘Mombi’s girls look better on the street, no one would disagree with that, but she has no breeding, no pedigree in this thing. Look how she made her money: cybersex salons. Haran is class, Haran is Sheriff of Sheriffs.’

‘Haran is a bad man and a damn rude boy,’ Tembo’s wife said with unexpected vehemence. ‘He is no good to anyone, none of them are, worthless posses.’

‘Anything you want,’ Faraway whispered confidentially to Gaby. ‘Haran can get it for you. And he does not deal in cash. He is a gentlemen, my friend Haran. He does you a favour, you do him a favour, some day, when he needs it. Maybe never.’

‘The devil is a gentleman too,’ said Mrs Tembo. ‘Very polite. He does you a favour, and then one day the favour he asks back is your immortal soul.’

‘Woman, you are prejudiced and computer illiterate,’ Faraway said. ‘You insult him, you insult all Luo. Who do you think brought Net technology and the information revolution to this poor country? Luo, that is who. Woman, you should be thanking Haran, not cursing him.’

She scowled and returned to the kitchen.

‘Faraway.’

‘Well, it is not illegal,’ Faraway said to Tembo.

‘Neither is it totally legal.’

‘All right. I will apologize to her. It is the beer, it is the warmth of the night, it is the excellent company of my good friends, it is the superlative food!’

This he shouted in the direction of the kitchen. ‘Gaby McAslan, believe me, you need this man. He can help you get what you want. I know where he is to be found, I can take you to him, introduce you. We are the same tribe, we are blood.’

8

Gaby carried the Ethiopic Gospel box carefully on her knees as the taxi driver swerved to avoid a crater in the road. In Kenya you could tell the drunk drivers. They were the ones driving straight down the roads. The box was a beautiful thing, the best in the shop. It had been made with the eyes and hands of faith. The side panels were illuminated with the four evangelists. On the top was a wide-eyed St George slaying a dragon that did not look as if it had put up much resistance. Gaby had balked at the price – half a month’s wages – but Faraway had insisted that nothing less than the best would be acceptable to Haran.

‘That is where a lot of big businessmen go wrong,’ he told her as the taxi negotiated the late-night downtown traffic. ‘They think they can buy a cheap Somali fake knocked up yesterday in a sweat-shop in Mogadishu, stuff it full of hundred shilling notes, or diamonds, or cocaine, and Haran will eat out of their hands. Such men receive the reward their small souls deserve. Haran, he is an aesthete. A connoisseur. A most spiritual man.’

He practised a strange form of magendo. Haran did collect Ethiopic scripture cases, with suitable inducements inside. He would receive the donation and beg to be excused a moment while he compared the case with his large, probably unparalleled collection. If he returned with the reliquary saying that he regretted that he was already in possession of one similar, you knew that for unspecified reasons your petition had failed. If he returned empty-handed and told you your donation was a grace to his collection, you knew that you had become a client of his posse. Either way, the cash inducement inside would be gone.

‘It is really a question of whether he likes you or not,’ Faraway said. The taxi swept past the huddled mounds of Nairobi’s street-sleepers, piled in doorways, wrapped in cardboard and tattered blankets and laid out like victims of a small holocaust along the sidewalks. ‘And he will like you. He likes beautiful, intelligent women. Women like him. I do not know why, given what happened to him.’

‘And you just have to tell me, don’t you?’

‘It was the khat,’ Faraway said, ignoring Gaby. ‘Everyone knows that bad things can happen if you chew too much, but we never thought it would be anything like that. It began back in Kisumu when he was just starting out. He used the khat leaves to help him concentrate: he was working with up to five simultaneous screens of information. No one had ever seen anyone chew that much khat. People used to warn him that no good would come of it, and staying up, staring at screens day and night. They were right.

‘He was smitten with a plague of orgasms.’

The taxi abruptly veered where there was no pothole. The driver had a sudden coughing fit. Gaby caught sight of his astonished eyes in the rearview mirror.

‘He could not help it. At home, at work, on the bus, out with friends, anywhere, any time: bam! An orgasm. Thirty, forty a day. The doctors had never seen anything like it. They had all kinds of explanations, but everyone knew it was too much khat. But in case you think that this is the greatest thing that could happen to a man, something terrible happened. After three months at forty orgasms a day, they suddenly stopped. Just like that. Gone! Since that day, he has never had another. Not in five years. He cannot even get it hard any more. Complete impotence. The doctors are as baffled as they were by the plague of orgasms. But I think that it is because every man has a certain number of orgasms in him, like bullets in a gun, and he can either fire them like a hunting rifle, at one target at a time, or spray them around like a machine gun. Haran used up his lifetime of orgasms in one big go.

‘And you, you no good damn rude boy!’ Faraway leaned forward and poked the driver in the shoulder. ‘Stop listening to the conversations of your betters and drive this heap of rust. That is what we are paying you for, not to see your ugly face grinning away in the mirror.’

Gaby McAslan wished Faraway had not told her that story. It would make everything so much harder, having to deal with a man who had been cursed with a plague of orgasms.

‘What is this Cascade Club anyway?’ she asked.

‘You will find out soon,’ Faraway said. ‘We are here.’

It betrayed no secrets from the outside: a big off-street retail block fronted by an Asian supermarket, a CD store and a haberdasher’s. Blue neon waterfalls framed a door from which a bouncer in an ankle-length leather coat and the biggest Afro haircut Gaby had ever seen scrutinized the street. There was no name, no flashing sign, just the tumbling neon waterfalls. The doorman stopped two middle-aged white men in fashionable hacking jackets, riding breeches and boots.

‘Boys’ night Thursday and Sunday,’ Gaby heard him say. He and Faraway traded fives and bantered in Swahili. Gaby wrapped the black lace shawl she had brought for the cool of the morning more tightly around the scripture box. Faraway slipped the doorman a fistful of shillings and ushered Gaby up the steep stairs behind the door.

‘Faraway, am I imagining it, or can I actually hear a waterfall?’

Faraway grinned his irresistible grin and opened the zebra-skin door at the top of the stairs.

The Cascade Club was built on two levels. The upper level where the bar, dance floor and tables were situated was a wide balcony that extended all around the hollow interior of the retail block. Patrons were crowded three deep at the bar. All the tables were occupied. The clientele was almost exclusively female. Barboys in gold lamé pouches, boots and bow ties moved dextrously between bar and kitchens. There was a lot of champagne being drunk. Some of the boys had cash poked down the fronts of their posing pouches. They smiled a little too hard.

The biggest crowd had gathered around the balcony rails, looking down into the lower section. It was down there, in the pit of the Cascade Club, that the action was to be found.

Floodlights gleamed from the pristine white tiles on floor and walls. The cages were black iron with dramatic chrome spikes. Some of the men inside were white. One was Native American. All had big muscles, no body hair and were naked. They clung to the spiked bars and arched their backs and shook out their long hair and pretended to be in that hybrid state of ecstasy and despair pornographers think is the pinnacle of sex as the high-pressure hoses played over them. Some ran from one wall of their cages to the other, like wild animals. Some crouched on all fours, trying to hide away from the water. Some rattled the bars and roared back at the roaring jets. Some were bound hand and foot in a variety of dramatic bondage devices.

Behind the splash-guards the women shrieked and laughed as they swung the hoses across the caged models. One of the men had had an erection; three different women targeted it with their jets. Every so often a stream of water would slacken and collapse. Then the woman behind the triggers would hunt in her purse for more tokens and if she had none, reluctantly hand over her weapon to the woman waiting behind the spray barrier while she hurried to the change booth with her credit card. Some of the women were soaked through, expensive cocktail dresses clinging to their bodies, hairstyles plastered flat, earrings dripping. They laughed hysterically.

Faraway joined a fascinated Gaby at the rail. He had brought piña coladas. ‘Compliments of the management,’ he said. ‘There are automatic cut-outs on the hoses to stop them trying to shoot up on to the balcony. They can do what they like to the boys, or each other.’

‘I can see why Haran bought into this place,’ Gaby said, sipping her thick, semeny cocktail and thinking Freudian thoughts about water jets and a man who had used up a lifetime of orgasms in three months.

Wails of disappointment rose from the tiled pit. The hoses were all failing at once. No quantity of tokens would restart them. Muscular scene-shifters in wet-suits with the tops pulled down and tied around the waist unshackled the cages from the floor bolts and carried them away on wheeled pallets. The big white floodlights went out. A single pinspot lit the pit. In it stood a smiling black man in a naval uniform. Loud music started. The man in the naval uniform began to dance to it. Yelling, the women leaped to their hoses. In one instant he was drenched, but he was still smiling. Piece by piece, he stripped. Water dripped from his oiled pectorals. Gaby hoped the water was not too cold, amazed at the profligacy. Even the resourceful Mrs Kivebulaya had to ration showers in thirsty Nairobi and pray that the rains would be early.

A tall man in flares, a blue denim safari jacket and a floppy cap came across the crowded bar to the rail.

‘If you will please follow me, the Sheriff will see you now.’

He led Gaby and Faraway through a door marked private in English and Swahili. Gaby clung to her Ethiopic scripture case like it was her own soul. The m’tekni’s platform soles clumped on the steep stairs. Do not laugh at these people, Gaby reminded herself. They dress like a classic episode of Kojak, but they run the corridors of the Pentagon and no one sees them, they play Find the Lady with the European Central Bank. They do not hesitate to kill to protect what is theirs. There is a top-range smartgun slung crosswise for a fast pull under that denim safari jacket.

At the door to the penthouse suite a second posseboy sniffed them with a snooperwand.

‘Please excuse me,’ he said. ‘Everywhere there are government stool-pigeons wearing wires. You are clear.’

What struck Gaby first about Haran’s penthouse was the floor. It was the glass-tile ceiling of the Cascade Club. She could just make out the bright square of the pit surrounded by the dark fringe of the balcony. The big fans that kept the moist air circulating turned slowly beneath her feet. There was no other light source in the big room than what escaped from the club below. It was like walking on a pane of luminous ice beneath which lay trapped, drowned souls.

Haran sat in a massive black Makonde chair behind an ebony desk. One hand rested lightly on the carved chair arm. The other held an antelope-tail fly-whisk, the traditional symbol of authority and wisdom.

‘My cousin Faraway, isn’t it?’ The voice was soft, cultivated. ‘It is a long time since I last saw you. I hope you are well.’

‘Better for seeing you, friend Haran.’

‘Who is this m’zungu with you?’

‘My name is Gaby McAslan,’ the m’zungu answered for herself. ‘I work with Faraway for SkyNet.’

Haran rose from behind his desk. He made Faraway look small. Gaby would have felt dwarfed had he not been so thin. With the paleness of his skin – cosmetic lightening, she reckoned – and the Cuban grandee’s frock coat, cravat and wide-brimmed hat, he looked like an avatar of some long-suppressed Afro-Caribbean animist sect. He had a pencil-line moustache and a permanent collagen pout.

He bent and kissed Gaby’s hand. His nails were French manicured. There was lace at his cuffs.

‘And what do you wish from me, Ms McAslan?’ He indicated chairs for them to sit. Coffee appeared, poured by yet another m’tekni.

‘A favour. In my line of business, information is life. I’m new in your country, I don’t have the contacts, the names, the numbers, and I want to move up quickly. I’m not ashamed to admit I am ambitious: it is not a sin. What you can provide me with can make the difference between me getting what I want, and being average.’

Haran pursed his lips, steepled his fingers.

‘I presume we are talking about a long-term relationship of patronage.’

‘In the news business you never know what you will need to know next, or when you will need to know it.’

‘It is not just in the news business,’ said Haran.

Faraway nudged Gaby’s foot.

‘I believe you are something of a connoisseur, Mr …’

‘My parents named me Haran.’

‘Haran. I wonder if perhaps you could give me your opinion on this? As I said, I am not long in this country, I have little knowledge about what is of true value, but I like to think that beauty is universal.’ She unwrapped the gospel case and placed it on the ebony desk. Her hands were shaking. She willed them to stop. They refused.

Haran studied the box for a long minute.

‘You have good taste, for a m’zungu. If you like, I will check it against my collection. There is so much that is false around these days, even the expert can be deceived. You know how the master learns to detect the forgery? By studying what is genuine. That is the only way to tell the true from the false. If you will excuse me, please.’

He left with the box through a door behind him. Gaby looked at Faraway who tapped his feet, tapped his fingers nervously.

‘Have you got a cigarette?’

‘Haran does not smoke, and does not like people who smoke. Anyway, I thought you only smoked after eating.’

‘And when I get stressed.’

He would be opening the box. He would be lifting out the money, the other half of her month’s wages. He would be counting the notes. There would be a terminal in there. He would be sending his software familiars out through it into the unseen world to find who is this woman who calls herself Gaby McAslan, what is she, can she be trusted?

Gaby McAslan found herself breathing very quickly and shallowly.

Now he would be examining the box. She did not doubt that he had the expertise he claimed. He would be lifting it into the light and scrutinizing the icons and the quality of its carving and engraving. He would be scratching the wood with his long fingernails to see that the colour went all the way through and was not just tourist-curio boot-polish. He would be sniffing it to test if it smelled like nine-hundred year-old wood.

Gaby found she was holding her breath. She released it in a long sigh. Beneath her the fans threw sinister black shadows on the ceiling.

The door at the end of the room opened. Haran returned to his seat. He was empty-handed.

‘It is an exceptionally fine piece, Ms McAslan. You are a very lucky woman to have found such a treasure with your inexperience. If you do not mind, might I keep it for while? I have a friend who shares my love of African art; I know he would very much like to see your piece. I shall be in contact with you regarding our relationship shortly. I think I can say without any doubt that I look forward to a long and mutually profitable professional patronage. Now, if you will excuse me, I have other matters I must attend to. In the meantime, please accept the hospitality of the Cascade Club. I shall instruct the door staff to render you full service any time you require. A pleasant and good night to you both.’

The posseboy who had opened the door closed it behind them. Music and laughter came up the staircase from the club below. You are a bought woman now; you are on the dark side of the street, Gaby McAslan thought. It was no strange thing. She had always been a bought woman. At least Haran’s terms on her soul seemed easy.

9

Gaby was working at the cast-iron table in the cool shade of the garden trees when Mrs Kivebulaya brought the emissary to meet her.

The messenger spoke in shanty-town Swahili. It offended his cool to speak English, though it was the lingua franca of the Net. Perhaps he disdained being at the call of a woman. Especially a m’zungu woman.

‘He has a communication for you from Haran,’ Mrs Kivebulaya translated, her professional, spiritual and social sensitivities disgraced by being expected to entertain rude boys and data-gangsters on sanctified premises. ‘A token of good faith, he says he has been told to tell you. A gift from Haran to mark the start of a new relationship.’

Haran’s messenger gestured for Mrs Kivebulaya to take the slip of paper between his fingers and give it to the white woman.

Gaby unfolded the paper. Her optically engineered pupils dilated.

On the paper was the exact location of one Mr Peter Werther. He was to be found in a New Millennium Traveller camp not thirty miles from this table. Which was a gesture of exceeding goodwill, because for the past five years the world had been of the opinion that Mr Peter Werther was a knot of rotting skin and bleached hair and grinning bone up among the snows of Kilimanjaro.

10

In Africa there are still roads that bless the driver. The road that runs from Nairobi to Nakuru is one. It climbs up through the affluent dark green suburbs of Nairobi, then the going gets steeper and it begins to wind between Kikuyu shambas of tall yellow maize and sugar cane. People walk along the cracked red edges of it with bundles of cane on their heads, or green and yellow cans of margarine and Milo. Green and yellow, too, are the matatus that whine up and down the hairpin bends, so overloaded you wonder that they can move. Up and up it goes and just when you think it will never stop and you will drive straight into the ankle of God it passes through a narrow, heavily wooded pass and the road seems to vanish. There is nothing in front of you but blue air and, a thousand feet below, the dry, sun-scorched plain of the mighty East African Rift Valley. The road clings to the contours of the hills, descending in a leisurely, African way to the valley floor and the lakes that in season are pink with a million flamingos, the Nyandarua to your right, to your left the sleeping volcanic mounds of Opuru and Longonot. And you are blessed.

On such a road you fold the top down on your SkyNet Vitara and you drive with your elbow on the top of the door and you turn the radio up and you sing and you let the wind blow back your long, red hair. Thelma and Louise had been a formative influence on the young Gaby McAslan. Her partner in crime was Ute Bonhorst, from the German language section. Gaby had been reluctant to take an accomplice, but she needed Ute’s German. She needed Ute’s silence in return for a half share of an exclusive with one of the hang-gliders who had disappeared on Kibo in the Kilimanjaro Event.

They came to the little home-made wooden bus-shelter on the very edge and stopped to look at the Rift Valley. Gaby walked to the brink, where the land fell sheer to the Kedong plain. This was a big country, a country not hedged and walled and fielded and bounded and owned, as Ireland was. This country was strong and independent and resisted the constraints of humans; it went on and on, over the horizon forever, where their small concerns ended. For the first time Gaby felt she was in Africa. Nairobi had frustrated and baffled and seduced her with its capital city extremes, sophistications, brutalities, but a city is not a country. A city is designed to walk tall in. This land reduced humans and their lives and their cars and their ribbons of dusty road to insignificance, and because you were nothing, you could dare to declare yourself, be that same bright, indivisible atom of being Gaby had felt that night beneath the summer stars on Ballymacormick Point.

Two little boys had set up a stall beside the bus-stop. The women bought charcoal-roasted maize and fresh prickly pears. The little boys were too surprised by the sight of white women to haggle over the price. Because she liked them, Gaby gave them each a ten-shilling note, which she knew was more than they made in a week. She hoped they would not get in trouble explaining to their parents where so much money came from.

The Travellers’ camp was only a few miles beyond the viewpoint, down a long dirt road that turned off the track to the Safariland Lodge and meandered along the shore of Lake Naivasha. Their wagons were pitched in the shelter of a stand of flame trees. Some were propped up on clinker blocks, wheels removed; a final surrender to the fuel shortages. These would never migrate along the world-lines again. A beautiful hand-painted wooden arch stood over the entrance to the settlement. What the Sun Said was its name.

What the sun said was dust. What the sun said was flies. The sun said heat. The sun said melanomas.

Tents and awnings billowed limply in the slow, hot air. Windchimes set on ornamental door-posts barely tinkled. Japanese fish-kites hung open-mouthed, stirring their streamer tails. Stranger fruit hung from the branches of the flame trees: things like cracked leather cocoons bound with steel wire. There were three of them, each about five feet long. They turned slowly anti-clockwise to Coriolis force. A lone generator chugged; most of the camp’s power came from silent solar panels. All the vans had small steerable dishes on their roofs: the economics of techno-nomadism was that the information revolution had made it not only a desirable life-style, but a necessary one. You followed the sun and lived the lifestyle in harmony with the planet until one day the fuel ran out and left you stranded in the heat and drought of Africa’s Rift Valley. With the Chaga approaching.

The Kilimanjaro Event had made East Africa the social navel of the planet. International Bright and Beautiful, and those who clung around them hoping that brightness and beauty were contagious, followed the planetary media circus to the plains in the shadow of the mountain. Most had moved on when Africa and things African slipped out of fashion. Some remained. They found room for their humanity to resonate in Africa’s great spaces. They made their camps under the big sky and settled into sun-warmed introversion and the evolution of white-boy ethnicity. The men of What the Sun Said were bearded and sat about with their hands dangling loosely over their knees, watching what was watchable. The women, naked to the navel, carried their babies slung at their waists and intimidated Gaby with the firm upturn of their breasts. Children in beads, feathers and zinc oxide war-paint on noses and cheekbones came running to greet the visitors. Their skins were tanned hard brown, there were flies around the corners of their eyes and mouths.

‘Are you the people come to talk to Peter?’ they asked. ‘We’re here to take you to him. Come on.’ They pulled Gaby and Ute along. Pied Piper in reverse. In one of the big, billowing saffron tents someone was playing a thumb-piano. The children brought the two women to a white awning roped to the side of a dilapidated country bus. Yee Ah! Kung Fu! said the motto painted on the side. Two caricature black men in white judo suits aimed kicks at each other’s head.

‘Here he is, here he is!’ the children clamoured. ‘Peter! They’re here! We’ve got them!’

‘Leave the talking to me,’ Gaby whispered to Ute Bonhorst.

The bus door opened. Peter Werther emerged.

This was what a man come back from the heart of darkness looked like. His face was tanned that dark brown peculiar to Teutons gone native. His hair was blond, long and worn in the community style; shaved at the sides, plaited at the back. Pale stubble made him look younger than Gaby knew him to be. He had the palest eyebrows she had ever seen. He did not affect the white-boy ethnic chic of the Sun-Saiders. He was dressed in a relaxed linen suit over a simple white T-shirt. No jewellery. No tattoos or ritual scarifications or body-piercing. His only idiosyncrasy was a leather biker’s glove on his left hand.

He greeted them with his right hand. Ute made the introductions in German.

‘Gaby McAslan. I know your work,’ Peter Werther said. His English was comfortable, softly accented with south German. ‘We get all the on-line services here: SkyNet, CNN Direct, News International Online. I liked your story about the genitals thief very much.’

‘I’m hoping to branch out.’ A swirl of warm wind set the black pods hanging from the trees swaying into Gaby’s peripheral vision.

‘They are into rebirthing,’ Peter Werther said, observing Gaby’s distraction. ‘Spiritual metamorphosis.’

‘There are people in those things?’

‘In sensory deprivation. They let them out after three, four days. The thing seems to be that they don’t tell you how long they are going to leave you hanging, or even if they are going to come back at all. Face the fear and pass through is the experience. I think that after three days upside down in this heat, you will believe anything you are told about yourself. There are always willing volunteers, and not just from the community.’

Ute had unfolded the camcorder and was videoing the cocoons.

‘Background,’ she explained.

‘Can we talk?’ Gaby asked Peter Werther. A fly darted at him and abruptly veered away, as if repelled.

‘Sure. That is why I have asked you to come here. But private, yes? They are private, personal things I have to tell you. Please come with me.’

Sun-Saiders waved to Peter Werther as he took the two women down to the lake side onto a wooden jetty that had been built out twenty yards through the reeds into the open water. At the end was a small wooden gazebo. Ute Bonhorst videoed flamingos. Gaby set up her recording equipment on the floor and checked levels. Water sparkled in the gaps between the boards. Peter Werther lit a cigarette.

‘Also, this is the only place they will let you smoke,’ he said, offering the pack. Ute did not smoke. Gaby declined. It would be easy to smoke too much in this job. ‘I am sure you are wondering, why this place, why these strange people with their strange rituals? Well, they are a good people, it is a good life they lead, but the real reason is simpler. They were the first people I met when I came out of the Chaga. I walked, you see. I was brought to the edge, and told I must leave now, and I just walked north. They do not ask questions, you see. They accept. If I had walked into an army patrol, or a UNECTA base, I do not know what would have become of me, but these people, in their months of travel, gave me the time and space to learn about myself, and what I have been changed into, and what it is I must do. And now I think I know, and I am ready, and these people have let me bring you into their peace and calm because they agree with me that the world needs to hear what I learned, back there.’ Peter Werther smiled. ‘I know what you are going to ask. Why am I not dead? After all, UNECTA says no one who goes into the Chaga ever comes out. I am not dead because the Chaga kept me alive. It kept me alive because that is its nature. I could have stayed there forever, in the cloud forests up on the mountain, but it would not let me stay. Someone had to come out and tell the truth about what is in there.

‘And what have I seen and experienced?’ He put a foot up on the wooden railing and contemplated the pink flamingos and the silver-blue lake and the high dark ridge of the Mau escarpment beyond. ‘Wonder and horror. Beauty and terror. Paradise, I suppose, but at the same time a …’ He struggled for a word, spoke briefly in German.

‘Insidious,’ Ute suggested.

‘Yes, an insidious hell. Monstrous, wonderful. I could pair off adjectives all day and not have communicated to you anything of what it is truly like in there. It is alien, it cannot be understood; much of it is so strange that it cannot be seen; yet we know it, we have always known it, deep in here.’ He cupped the back of his head with his gloved left hand. The hindbrain, the medulla, the brainstem; the roots of primal consciousness.’

‘The heart of darkness?’ Gaby suggested.

‘The beginning of all light,’ Peter Werther corrected. ‘In there are things that I can only call organic cities, but like no city you or I or anyone would design. Cities of our dreams: kilometres and kilometres of pods and clusters and things for which there are no names, on avenues that no one has ever walked but me. A million people could be fed and sheltered; and they are waiting for us. We know it, it knows us. Once before, a very long time ago, so long we have forgotten it except in dreams, we met and parted. But it has not forgotten us.’

The lies UNECTA tells! It is not hostile to humanity: it supports life, whatever life comes into contact with it. Symbiosis: that is the way of the Chaga. It feeds and shelters you and you become a part of it. If it was alien, it could not do that: there would be no point of contact between us. That is why I say it knows us, and has known us for a long time.

‘It thinks. At night you can hear its dreams in your dreams, like a song that has been sung for a million years. It learns: in the early days they tried to poison it: defoliants, systematic herbicides. The Chaga analysed and put together counter-agents to neutralize them within minutes. It defends itself: fire will not burn it, poison will not kill it. There was talk of dusting it with powdered plutonium waste. The Chaga would have filtered it and made it safe. Not even a nuclear strike would kill it now. As long as one molecule remains, it will grow back again. It’s smart. The trees talk. The roots connect, like the cells in your brain. They touch, they share and they think, but it is not any kind of intelligence we can understand.’

Peter Werther smoked the rest of his cigarette in the self-conscious silence of a man who has said too much of something personal and unique to him and fears that people think that he is not sane. The screams of playing children came across the water from What the Sun Said. Drums started up. Tribal life for people brought up in the great western cult of the individual. Peter Werther has been further into the heart of darkness than any of them would ever dare, Gaby McAslan thought, and so he does not need to play dress-up-and-pretend and stick feathers through his nipples.

‘Could you tell us about the Kilimanjaro Event?’ she asked. Ute changed disc on the camcorder. The acrylic wrapper blew around the floor of the wooden gazebo on a wind rising from the north.

‘I cannot add much to what the others have said. We had made camp up on Kibo at Elveda Point and were resting: the air is thin up there, it is hard to breathe, even when you are not carrying hang-gliders. We made radio contact with base camp at the Marangu Gate Hotel and said that we would begin flying the next day. It was just after midnight when the thing came down: all I can remember is a flash and roar and explosion. It is always difficult to describe things like this. Language does not have the words: it is like survivors of air-crashes. They have been through the end of the world and all they can say is boom! That was what I thought had happened; there had been an air-crash on the mountain. Then there was a sudden huge wind that swept away our tents and scattered all our things – that was when we lost Sabine, she went to look for the gliders. She never came back. I think she must have fallen. There are sheer drops along the Breach Wall. I never found her, afterwards. The Chaga would have taken away every trace of her.

‘Joachim tried to get in radio contact with base camp and tell them there had been an major accident on the mountain. Lise, Christian and I went down to see if we could find any survivors. The night had been clear, with a good moon, but had quickly clouded up. It can do that, up on the mountain. The wind had risen to gale force. We found where it had ploughed up the land and followed it for about a kilometre downslope. It came in from the north east, you see?’ He mimed the arc of the package with his gloved hand. ‘It had come down on the edge of the Diamond Glacier, about a kilometre from our camp. There was no fire. If it had been an airplane crash, there would have been a fire, even on the icefields. You do not think about this at the time; all you think about is finding someone alive.

‘When we saw the site, we knew this was no air crash. The crater was about ten metres wide and thirty long. The thing itself was about the size of a bus. You have seen the mock-ups they have done on computer. They are pretty much as we saw it. What I remember is the heat – the thing was still dull red from re-entry. I could feel the warmth on my face and hands. I remember having two impressions. The first was of the terrible airline bombing, Lockerbie, do you remember that, or are you too young?’

‘I was four,’ Gaby said, ‘but I’ve seen it on nostalgia shows.’

‘The other impression was of that old sci-fi book: The War of the Worlds? H.G. Wells? I was expecting one end to unscrew and tentacles to come out. Lockerbie and The War of the Worlds: that is what I was thinking, standing on the edge of the crater. It looked scary. I know that sounds a funny thing; it was obvious that it had been made – this was not a rock that had fallen out of the sky – but not in the way people would make something. Do you understand this? All the proportions were wrong. They fitted together, but they looked strange. And it was not broken either, like an airplane would have been broken. We knew we were seeing the thing intact, as it was meant to be, and that this was what it was meant to do. It did not look like an accident.’

Across the lake a dusterplane was spraying the green circles of sharecrop orchard. Flamingos fled from it, peeling up from the water in a pink wedge of wings.

‘The storm was getting up by then; there was nothing else we could do that night. Lise suggested we come back when the weather had cleared. But I know that we all felt, no, we knew, that the storm had come out of the thing in the crater.

‘The storm closed in while we were returning to camp. I don’t know how we made it. A blizzard, in the tropics. Unglaublich. I know now there was more than snow in it, but I now know more about many things. We put our tents up and took shelter. We had no idea it would be so long or terrible. The first day our radio stopped working: we had no contact with our base camp. The second day the strange things started happening. Our tents began to fall apart. A little yellow patch about the size of a pencil-point would appear on the waterproof fabric and within minutes grow to the size of my hand. The same happened to our weather-wear; to anything that had plastic in it, which is almost everything in modern mountaineering. Of course, you know what was happening.’

‘The spores, the virons, whatever you want to call them, scavenge hydrocarbons to use as building blocks for Chaga life,’ Gaby said.

‘And plants and vegetable proteins too,’ Peter Werther said. ‘But never the living flesh of animals, never breathing, moving things. Strange, so? It knows us, you see.’ His gloved hand gripped the wooden railing. Weaver birds were building one of their hanging basket-nests under the roof. They came and went with stalks of grass and reed. Humans did not perturb them. They had more important agendas.

‘The story is well known. Lise and Christian and Joachim stayed to wait for Sabine. Because I had the most experience in the mountains, I tried to go down to get help. Their stories end with me walking out into the blizzard and disappearing. That is where mine properly begins.’

He offered cigarettes. This time Gaby took one.

‘I was a fool. No experience could have prepared me for what I found out there. It was total white-out, but at the same time, strange shapes were looming out of the snow, like nothing I had ever seen before. Coming out of the ground under my feet, before my eyes. As I watched! In twenty steps I was lost. But I stumbled on, not knowing if my next step would take me over the edge of a drop, my weather-proof clothing rotting and falling apart around me. Rotted through, like … what is the word?’ He said something in German.

‘Mildew?’ Ute Bonhorst suggested.

‘Ja. My only protection against the storm was coming apart in my fingers. At that altitude, in such a wind-chill, you develop hypothermia within minutes. All you want to do is give up and lie down in the snow and let it all stop. That is what you want most of all, for it all just to stop.’ He looked out at the patterns the crop-duster wove on the sky. A thin coil of smoke rose from his cigarette. ‘That is what I did. It was all I could do, do you understand? I was too cold, too confused, too afraid. I lay down. I went to sleep. And I died. I know it, in here.’ His gloved hand tapped his breastbone. ‘I died up there on that mountain. And the mountain brought me back to life.

‘There is no time in death. There are no dreams. That is how you know it is death and not sleep. But you do not awake from death, and I awoke. It seemed like an instant, though I have worked out since that I was dead for over a year. When you wake from death, it is all the terrible things about being born again. You are forced from a warm, comfortable womb of flesh into a world that you cannot understand. I woke in darkness, kicking at the bubble of soft skin into which I was curled. It unfolded around me like the petals of a flower, in speeded-up film, ja? You have seen pictures of the things they call hand-trees. There are thousands of them, millions probably; all pure white. In one of those I came back to life, half-way up the face of a huge reef of Chaga growing out of the mother-mass. It must have been five hundred metres high; the top was always covered in that damn fog. The forest would not let me see too far, so that I would not try to leave it. It did not want to lose me. Every time I tried to escape, it would bring me back. I would have to fall asleep in the end, and I would wake in a hand-tree back where I started, on the side of that damn sky-reef. It stole time from me – whole years were lost in sleep. I imagine myself passing through pipes and tunnels and tubes underneath the earth, like the veins and arteries of the Chaga.

‘I woke naked except for a few scraps of metal: buckles, a zipper, the remains of my Rolex. You owe me a Rolex, you hear me? Everything had been digested by the Chaga. Even my hair, my eyelashes, eaten by the Chaga. I was naked high on the side of a mountain, but I was not cold. I do not know what it had done to me but I never needed clothing while I lived with it. I had been changed. And I could breathe the thin air as easily as if I were down on the coast: another change. It did something to my sweat glands: have you noticed how insects never seem to bother me? I am a natural insect repellent. Mosquitoes avoid me: that was one gift the Chaga let me keep.

‘It fed me, it sheltered me, it gave me water to drink. There are things like huge flowers up there; when it gets dark they open up and you can shelter inside and they will close around you and protect you. And when storms blew and the rains came, the reef would provide little soft caves – like pores in your skin – where I could curl up and listen to the sound of the wind across the high forest. Sometimes when I fell asleep it would move me to another place, another time. How I knew was that all my hair would disappear again.

‘The Chaga is full of ghosts. On the journeys I was allowed to make, I found traces of humans – abandoned game lodges, skeletons of cars and buses. Once I found a cache of old photographs still in silver frames – the glass had preserved them from the Chaga. They became my family, the people in those photographs. I felt that while I had been dead up there in the snows, the world had ended and I was the last man on earth. No, that is not quite right. I felt more like the world had just begun and I was the first man. I was Adam, alone and naked in a new Eden.

‘But there are not just the ghosts of the past up there; there are the ghosts of the future. I see you do not understand me: I will try to explain to you how I felt. In places the Chaga has memorized the shapes of the buildings that once stood there and stored them as, ah?’ He said a German word Gaby could not catch.

‘Templates,’ Ute Bonhorst said.

‘Exactly. Templates that time would one day fill in with wood, and brick, and concrete, and in the end, people. Ghosts of things to come. One day I found a tree of human skulls – it had grown from an old Wa-Chagga cemetery, but they did not seem to me to be the skulls of the dead, but of the yet-to-be-born, waiting for flesh and skin to grow and thought to fill them. There was a place, high up on the reef – a good two hours’ climb – where the Chaga had grown a television tree. It was like a baobab with screens set into the trunk, each tuned to a different channel. It was my eye on the world. From it I learned how long I had been dead and what had happened to those I had left up on Kibo, and what had happened to the world to which they had returned. I learned how deep I was within the forest and what a difficult journey it would be if I were to return to that world and my friends who did not know that I had been brought back from the dead.

‘That was the first time the Chaga stole me and took me to someplace else. It had made a mistake in showing me the world beyond. It is not God, you see. It can make mistakes. But it would not let me go. It needed me too badly.’

‘Needed you?’ Uninvited, Gaby took one of Peter Werther’s cigarettes. The smoke was normality. The crop-duster, circling in the shadow of the Mau Escarpment: normality. The children wheeling about on their battered bicycles in the dust and flies of What the Sun Said: normality. They anchored her against the grand insanity of this pale-eyebrowed man’s experience of the Chaga.

‘I believe that while I slept, the Chaga read my DNA,’ Peter Werther said. ‘I know that every time I woke, the Chaga had changed in subtle ways. Some of the fruit I normally ate now contained meat that tasted something like the way I smell. The Chaga had spliced my genes into the fruit. It made me eat myself, can you understand that? The flower pods began to absorb my wastes and recycle my water: I shat in the forest, food-plants would sprout. At night among the trees I was accompanied by flocks of little bioluminescent balloons keyed to my scent. Through me, the Chaga was programming itself for human habitation. But in another sense, it needed me. It came to me.’

‘You mean sexually?’ Gaby asked.

‘It became my lover. That is what I mean. In the big sleeps it had known me as intimately as any one thing may know another. It gave me the chance to know it as intimately as it knew me.’

Gaby exhaled smoke in that slow trickling way that people who smoke can say, I do not want to believe you, but I have to.

‘Ours was a mystical union as much as a physical one. It was more a symbiosis – that is the way of the Chaga, to join with things not of itself and draw them into it. This was the time I began to understand the voice of the Chaga. Do you remember what I said about the song that was a million years old? I believe that my nervous system was adapted to tap into the neural circuitry of the Chaga. I could hear, but I could not understand. It was too fast and too slow at the same time.’ Peter Werther directed a sentence in German to Ute.

‘Sequencing and synthesizing,’ she said. ‘You mean, the speed with which the Chaga read and translated DNA and used it to re-program itself was too fast to be comprehended.’

‘Ja.’ The crop-duster had drawled away to the north. Rafts of flamingos descended from the wheel of birds to resume feeding in the lake shallows. ‘As fast as a computer. Maybe faster. Certainly bigger. If you imagine what a computer a hundred kilometres across could process. But also slower: the intelligence behind it – the mind, the spirit, yes? – works on a different scale of time from us. We are too fast for it: it is a huge, slow, profound vegetable consciousness.’

‘Did you ever find any evidence of the intelligence behind the Chaga?’ Gaby did not want to say the word aliens. It was not a word for a place as open and filled with light as this. Peter Werther did not have any problem with it.

‘Aliens, you mean? No, I never saw anything that made me think there was an intelligence behind the Chaga other than its own. Those cities I found up there; they are not waiting for the alien masters to step from the soil and inhabit them, they are for us, on the day when we learn we cannot run away from the Chaga any more and come to it as a friend rather than an enemy. We are the aliens. This is the message I was sent out from the Chaga to tell. It knows us, it has known us for a very long time. It is not alien and hostile. It may be unfamiliar, sometimes shocking, but it is ultimately human. It has come from the stars to show us our destiny is out among the stars. That is our rightful place, our destiny. But not as we are now: that is why the Chaga has come, to join with us, and change us into new forms that can live among the stars.’

Ute exchanged glances with Gaby. Peter Werther saw the raised eyebrows.

‘Ah, you are thinking, another idiot with a mad theory about the Chaga. It has fried his brains, all that hot sun and thin air and years of solitude: he has gone quietly insane. I can understand that. There are so many people with messages about the Chaga: mine is by no means the maddest. Or the sanest. It was anticipated that I would not be believed – you may even be doubting that I was lost for the five years since the Kilimanjaro Event, that I am Peter Werther at all. Well, I have something you should see.’

He held out his left hand, palm up. With his right hand he removed the leather biker’s glove.

‘Look closely,’ Peter Werther said.

At first Gaby thought it was an intricate tattoo covering all the upper surfaces of his left hand from fingertips to wrist. Fractal pattern tattoos had been briefly fashionable among her fellow students in London. Then she thought that it was a strange and terrible birthmark, a complex meander of skin pigments. There was something familiar in the very alienness, like those photographs you see of parts of things in close up.

‘Oh dear Jesus,’ Gaby McAslan whispered, seeing.

It was Chaga. The legacy of the alien rainforest was a piece of itself imprinted in the palm of Peter Werther’s left hand. Trees, pseudo-corals, mosaic-cover: complete, perfect, a million times miniaturized.

Peter Werther slipped off his linen jacket.

Amongst Gaby’s father’s library of home-videoed old movies was a tape of The Illustrated Man. Five hours a day, it had taken to make Rod Steiger up for the role. The most complex skin-job in cinema history, but the effect had been breathtaking.

Behold the man, Gaby McAslan. Peter Werther’s left arm up to the sleeve of his T-shirt was covered in Chaga. He pulled the white T-shirt off over his head. The mottled infestation stopped at a clearly defined circle halfway across his pectoral – he was in good shape for a late thirtysomething, Gaby noted in that trivia-gathering way of those who do not want to believe the evidence of their eyes. The Chaga closed across his shoulder, down his scapulars and looped under his arm at the third rib.

‘It’s growing,’ he said. Ute Bonhorst mapped the geography of his body minutely with the video camera.

‘Doesn’t it, ah?’ Gaby wallowed for questions.

‘Hurt? No. There is no pain at all. That’s the marvellous thing about it, it’s quite painless. And you need not worry, it is not infectious. Let us say, no one in What the Sun Said has caught it off me. It is personal to me, my sign, my stigmata.’

‘How fast?’ It repelled Gaby, yet was morbidly attractive. She wanted to touch it, but did not know if she could bear the feel of it beneath her fingertips.

‘Oh, very, very slow. A few millimetres a day. But it moves in time with its mother, if you understand? To scale. And, like it, this cannot be stopped.’

‘You’ve tried?’

‘I know.’

‘How long have you got?’

‘It is about nine months since I woke in a flower pod at the very edge of the Chaga. Then it was just a spot in the middle of my palm. So, you can work it out. What do you think? About another year or so? Maybe two? It seems to be avoiding my face: that, I think, will be last to go. It knows how important the face is to us.’

‘What then?’

Peter Werther smiled.

‘Something wonderful, I think. I know that I require less food and water and sleep than before. Even now, I sometimes forget to breathe for several seconds, and have not yet come to any lasting harm.’

Ute spoke in German.

‘Perhaps,’ Peter Werther said. ‘She is asking me if maybe I am becoming, ah?’

‘Photosynthetic.’

‘Ja. And recycling my own water. Becoming a self-sufficient, sealed unit. Perhaps. I do not know. Perhaps I will live forever; whatever, I am not afraid of it. There is nothing to be afraid of; it is not death, it is not disfigurement. It is being changed into a better thing, a fitter thing. I am not the future, but I may be a future.’

Gaby shook her head in disbelief. Not at what Peter Werther had told her, and whether he could be believed or not, but that she had been given such a gift as this. This was syndication to every on-line newsnet on the planet. This was the centre spread of every lumbering folding paper Gutenberg dinosaur. This was prime-time broad-and narrowcast news: this was half the industrialized world choking on their microwave TV Chow. This was Time and Le Monde and Stern. This was lead-lines on magazine covers from stands on Times Square to the Gare du Nord.

This was Gaby McAslan in front of a camera lens.

‘They’ll never leave you alone once this gets out,’ she said.

‘We can always move. What the Sun Said has been good to me. There is a lot of country for us to disappear into.’

‘They’ll find you. They won’t give you space like we have. They won’t let you say what you want to say, they won’t respect your message, or your story, or where you’ve been, or what you’ve seen. They’ll be asking you how you think the world has changed in the five years you’ve been away and what you think of the latest fashions and the latest music and the latest supermodel and what the three things are you missed most while you were in the Chaga. They’ll do articles on your sex life, they’ll run features on the contents of your bloody refrigerator. They’ll ask you a million things, but they won’t listen to you. They’ll make you into a celebrity.’

‘I know this. But people must be prepared. People must understand. Even one word of mine may be enough. Prophets are never honoured in their own countries. Even if they do not listen to what I have to say, it may be enough to see that a man can go into the Chaga and return.’

But as what? Gaby thought.

The voices of the children grew louder. They came running along the shore and out onto the wooden jetty, shouting for their Brother Peter. Peter Werther hastily pulled on his protecting garments.

‘They are my family, my friends. Even if no one else will, they believe me.’

The children spilled into the wooden gazebo. The weaver birds fled from their clamouring voices and restless bodies. The children tugged at Peter Werther’s sleeves and hands, implored him to come and look at what they were doing.

‘Their future too,’ he said. ‘Ja?’

A great cloud, dark, flat-bottomed, rising to a peak of curdled cumulus ten miles high, edged over the eastern escarpment and cast its reflection into the lake.

11

Gabygram 8
April 24
from: GMcA@136657NAI:EAFTP.

Hi Reb. A million thanks for the tapestry. It got here relatively unplundered by Customs and Excise, except for the inevitable wee hole they snip off the corner so they can stick an endoscope in to sniff for cocaine. It’s a beautiful thing; too precious for this place. When I find a more permanent bunk, I’ll accord it its due honour. Which, as I’ve said, may be sooner rather than later. Mrs K. says this is not really the place for me, though she’s loved having me – she has a soft spot for Irish girls: apparently I am not the first, which makes me rather suspicious, but I can’t go into that here. But she has a friend in the cathedral choir who works in the Global Aids Policy Unit who has a lodger who may be moving out – I don’t care, just get my feet under the table.

So, I’m Auntie Gab again? A wee girl. Hannah’ll probably stop at two, she’s a real two is enough, three is social irresponsibility person. I’m happy, of course, but I warn you, this is what happens when you steal your sister’s boyfriend. Actually, Marky and her were made for each other, so they should be thankful to me for having introduced them. Some people like living in a Laura Ashley catalogue. Me, when, if, I have kids, I want dozens. All over the place. Noisy and dirty and rude and lively.

Very pleased to hear Dad’s gall bladder operation was a success. Doctors, what do they know? There’s more rest and healing out on the Point than fretting indoors listening to the birds and the wind and wanting to be out there, except that some eejit of a doctor says you’re not allowed to. It’s good this time of year, the Point; the gorse will just be past its best, the leaves budding. You miss seasons here; whatever changes there are as the planet spins around the sun are too subtle for a white girl like me to notice.

I’m keeping up with United’s progress through the Net – we have an office league going, those of us who appreciate the finer points of the Beautiful Game, as opposed to the ethnic cleansing Americans call football. Our very own SkyNet United has, ahem, been doing rather well recently. We stuffed the BBC last week: four nil, four nil, four nil, four nil! One of them from the size five of your own dear sister. Tembo would have made a hat-trick but for a decidedly dodgy tackle on the edge of the box; the ref was obviously blind, bribed or both, it was a clear-cut penalty. Faraway managed to stop everything that was fired at him for once, in between showing off his natty new sports gear to his multitude of goal-line groupies. Next fixture is against UNECTA itself, that is, when there are enough of our peoples in town to make teams.

So, I’m a celebrity. Local girl makes good. If they’re talking about me in the Groomsport Drugstore, I really have arrived. Wish I felt so good about it. Jesus Reb, SkyNet … I get the animations back from the Manga Twins – whom I’ve never met – I e-mail the thing to T.P.’s PDU so it’s the first thing he sees when he gets out of the bed in the morning. He creams himself, Reb.

Gaby McAslan is the toast of the Thorn Tree. Even that bitch Abigail Santini shouted me lunch at the Norfolk and managed to do a passable impersonation of being gracious. Pats on the back from Cap’n Bill at head office, even. I tell T.P. the Werther story was worth its weight in cocaine so when is he going to pull me off on-line and put me out in the field as a correspondent?

Fuckpig Nazi bastard asshole. He sits there behind his desk and says to my face, ‘Well, I don’t know, you’re doing so well in On-line it would be a mistake to move you just as you’re carving out a niche for yourself,’ and then gives me some shit about wanting me in On-line to cover the Tolkien probe when it rendezvouses with Iapetus at the beginning of next week, because I’m the only one he can trust to do it right. Jesus, Reb, Ute Bonhorst’s name is on the copyline, but I made the Werther story, every last bit of it. They don’t need a journalist for the Tolkien thing. Bastard Dubliner. Never trust a Southerner.

On the up side, though, I’m going out on the town with Oksana Telyanina. The Siberian shamaness? She left a message for me on the Thorn Tree. Used to be a regular jungle telegraph back in the Great White Hunter days, now it’s mostly wankers on TransAfrica Jeep Safaris with names like Jerome or Letitia telling Rudy and Charlotte they’ll meet them in Alex, OK? And one addressed to me. Gaby McAslan. Spelled wrong. Here it is, see? ‘Big cocks and vodka, Gaby! Come with me and meet men!’ She writes like a six-year-old. We’re going to this place called the Elephant Bar up at Wilson Airfield – she calls it Weelson, which is going to remain stuck in my head forever – where the Siberian pilots all hang out, drink vodka, smash glasses and male bond. They have a strict dress code. Very strict. They won’t let you in unless you’re wearing shorts. Shades are optional, but if your knees don’t show, you’re bounced. So, what do you think? T-shirt not too much? Hannah may have got the man, but I kept the T-shirt. At least T-shirts can’t get you pregnant.

Gotta dash, Reb. Keep an eye out for my reports on the Tolkien-Iapetus fly-by. Love to Dad and Paddy and the cats, and Hannah, I suppose, and the sprogs. I’ll just close this file and mail it. Love you. Bye now.

12

While Gaby grubbed around in the smoggy streets of Nairobi, Oksana Telyanina had been half-way around the planet on UNECTA’s business. She had also collected a new tattoo; a tiny tree about the size of a thumbnail on the ball of her right shoulder. It symbolized the soul’s search for transcendence and union with the spirit world: the mystical ascent of the apprentice sha-person into a tree to be possessed by the spirit of a totemic animal.

The Elephant Bar’s totemic animal was self-evident. There were tusks behind the bar; plastic replicas, not out of ecological sensitivity, but because the ivory ones had been sold on the black market during a financial crisis six years ago, before Siberians came and turned the Elephant Bar into little Irkutsk. So now there were not only photographs of elephants, paintings of elephants, posters of elephants, batiks and wall-hangings and bamboo screens of elephants, elephant foot stools and tables supported by carved wooden elephants, like Hindu cosmology; there were also icons on the walls, bottles of Stolichnaya on the back bar and little silver pots of caviar all along the counter. At one end a volcanic samovar simmered.

‘Story is: elephant walks out of National Park, which in those days did not have fence round, like now,’ Oksana had explained. ‘Right on to main runway and straight into pissy little Cessna trying to take off. Boom! Shredded jumbo for half kilometre every direction. That is why called Elephant Bar.’

The Siberians in shorts and shades and fur hats with the ear-flaps folded down decided that the women at the table needed their company and sat down with them. Oksana convinced Gaby that it would be a good time to go out on to the airfield and look at the aeroplanes. Time spent looking at aeroplanes is time exceedingly well spent.

The air was warm out on the strip. Little night winged things swooped through the soft gloaming. Runway lights were a glowing path to the main tower a mile distant. Fuel trucks nosed among the parked aircraft like hungry piglets. The night smelled of dust and aviation kerosene.

‘I thought you were taking me to meet men, not jugfuls of vodka and hormones,’ Gaby said.

Oksana shrugged. ‘Not many men in this country at all. Plenty of rides. Few men. If you do get man, you must hold him, hard. I tell you how you keep him for ever. Serbski Jeb. That is how. Serbian fucking. You can do it indoors but outside much better. Make sure ground is soft. You get man. You stake him out, yes? So?’ She mimed a spread-eagle. ‘Good and tight. Then you get on top of him and you ride him. Slow. Very slow. When he seems to come, you slow down, stop him. After half-hour, forty minutes, he is out of his head. Afraid he is dying, afraid he is not going to die, and nothing he can do to stop you. Girl on top. Won’t work other way. You always in charge. He’ll want more, but careful with it, yes? Not for every day. Holidays, birthdays, New Year; keep it special so he will not get used to it. He’s yours for ever, I promise.’

‘How the hell do you know this?’

‘Eight months of snow in Irkutsk. You learn much those long, dark nights by the fire.’

‘It’s not just fucking, it’s everything,’ Gaby said. ‘I’ve been here two months and I want something to happen. Something real: not a report of it, or a press release, or even someone who has experienced it himself. The real thing. I want to see the Chaga, Oksana, that’s all. I am going out of my head with frustration. I want something to happen.’

‘I think maybe your prayer will be answered, Gaby. Something is happening. They have been fuelling up planes all day. Something is coming, very soon, I feel. I do not know what; they will not tell us until the pre-flight briefing, but because of what I am, I can sense things others cannot.’

Oksana fingered a leather amulet on a thong around her neck. ‘Change is coming. Will be rain by morning. I can smell it. My grandfather had a famous weather nose. I have inherited it.’

They walked under the wings of a stubby, barbaric little jet: T-tail, two big turbofans mounted above the wing-roots. It was the same aircraft that was printed on Oksana’s faded sleeveless T-shirt. Two black soldiers came around the aircraft’s nose. They recognised Oksana and nodded without challenging Gaby. They carried their automatic weapons with the brutal ease peculiar to African soldiers, as if they were bags of vegetables. Oksana placed her hand affectionately on the fuselage. This is mine. She is not beautiful, but I love her. Do anything, go anywhere for me. Good as any man. Better, maybe. Does not need Serbski Jeb to keep her true to me.’

A Cyrillic word was spray-stencilled under the cockpit windshield.

‘What does it say?’

‘Is her name. Dostoinsuvo. Means “dignity”. Come, I show you something.’ Oksana opened the hatch. Steps unfolded, alerted by her handprint. Gaby followed her up into the cockpit.

Oksana cleared a mail order catalogue for a Californian New Age store from the vacant co-pilot’s seat. Dostoinsuvo’s flight deck was a shrine to credit card shamanism. Leather sacks like sun-dried scrotums hung from the cockpit window. The hatch glass had been streakily stained with glass paint to portray images of the Ancestral Tree. Thumbnail icons looked down from between the redundant ceiling switches with the beatific indifference peculiar to Orthodox saints. Colour photocopies of mandalas were gunge-tacked to the back of the flight deck door; crystals of various hues and spiritual properties rested in niches in the command board. The bleached skulls of Oksana’s totemic animals were glued along the upper edge of the main console, which had been sprayed with green car paint that was peeling under the partial pressurisation. Tiny chimes glittered and tinkled in the draught from the air-conditioning vents; the virtual reality helmet was adorned with painted reindeer horns.

‘Is like explosion in magic shop, but I love her,’ Oksana said. ‘She takes me high, to the places of the spirits, and collects the power of the high places on her wings so I can bring it back to earth. Do not laugh, Gaby. You do not feel it, you do not have the power in your genes.’

I am not laughing, Gaby thought. It is the most real thing there is. It is the thing that makes you want to do what you want so bad you would die if you could not do it. But you cannot touch it or hold it, for the moment you start to think about what it is, you turn away from the thing that produces it and you kill it. You can only find it when you do not seek it, you can only see it when you look away from it. It is pure being. Dhyana. It dwells in the cockpit of an An72F at twenty thousand feet as comfortably as in the nested fan-folds of information and video in a complex multimedia news overlay, but it will only come as an uninvited guest.

Oksana slipped her hand into the manipulator glove, flexed it in imagined flight and pointed through the window at the aircraft standing opposite Dostoinsuvo. It was unlike any other on Weelson Airfield: long, low, lean, mean, wings swept-back, nose uplifted to the stars. It seemed to stab the night.

‘Is beautiful, no? Beautiful bird,’ Oksana said. ‘Tupolev 161. Executive jet variant of old Soviet Blackjack bomber. UNECTA priority transport. After-burning Kuznetzov turbofans: she will do Mach 2.2 at fifteen thousand metres. Swing wing. Take you anywhere in the world. Of course, they will not let Oksana fly this. For men only. Big macho thing. Penis with wings. But some day, some day, Oksana Mikhailovna will be in captain’s chair up there. My ambition, Gaby. See? Both poor unhappy frustrated women. You with Chaga, me with big supersonic dick. But when we are happy, let us not forget this, Gaby. When we have dreams, and men, do not let them come between us, no? Men come, men go, friendship goes on.’ She held out her hands. Moved by the Siberian woman’s honest inarticulacy, Gaby clasped them in her own hands. ‘Any time you want, any time you need, any time, I will be there. When he is gone – for they all go, in the end – you come to me. I will not go.’

They sealed Dostoinsuvo behind them and went back to the Elephant Bar; the Siberians were singing songs from the shows: ‘Thumbelina’, in astonishingly close harmony. They were not drunk yet. They all had little pumps whirring away in their right arms.

13

The rain woke Gaby ten seconds before the PDU on the bedside table paged her, which was ten seconds before Mrs Kivebulaya knocked and entered with a pot of exceptionally strong coffee.

‘You have ten minutes to drink this and get dressed before Jake Aarons gets here,’ she said. ‘I think after last night you might need it.’

Gaby screwed her eyes against the white agony of the bedside light. She felt vertiginous, dehydrated, feverish.

‘What time is it?’

‘Quarter past four.’

Quarter past four? Jake Aarons? Ten minutes?

‘All the news agenies are mobilizing,’ Mrs Kivebulaya said. ‘There is something happening, I do not know what. You have just enough time to drink this, put on a face and get out, my dear.’

The rain was so heavy, Gaby was soaked through in the few yards between hotel porch and SkyNet Landcruiser. It was only when she had fastened her seatbelt and Jake Aarons had driven off that she wondered how Mrs Kivebulaya knew something big was happening before the news companies.

‘You smell like the Tusker brewery,’ Jake Aarons said. He had had no more warning than Gaby but he was smart, shaved, groomed, professional. Gaby suspected the mental cameras never stopped rolling on his life.

Only the news agencies and the military were abroad in the city this morning. Gaby had never seen so many soldiers. Entire divisions were on the move, rolling in slow, heavy convoys forty, fifty vehicles long through the deserted streets. Military policemen in streaming UN white raincapes held the civilians up at intersections to let the trucks through. They looked oddly insubstantial, like watery white ghosts, seen from the warmth and instrument glow of the Landcruiser. Uhuru Highway was gridlocked with armoured personnel carriers. Something had broken down up by the railway bridge. Jake Aarons smiled at the saturated blue-helmets waving him to standstill with red flashlights and took the 4×4 on to the central reservation. Big all-terrain tyres chewed municipal flowerbeds and lawns to red mud.

‘We’ve got a live one. A biological package. Came down about four hours ago in the Nyandarua National Park.’

‘Jesus, Jake …’

‘They’ve been tracking it for days, seems. Knew exactly where it was coming down, but the bastards back there,’ he nodded in the direction of the Kenyatta Centre, ‘didn’t want the press in on it until they’d secured the area. Of course, nothing moves in this burg but we don’t hear about it, so the moment the wagons started to roll, we got suspicious and they had to come out with it. If they’d told us before the event, that would been the biggest story since the Resurrection, but they’re flying us up there for nothing, so it’s churlish to complain.’

Gaby recalled Oksana’s premonitions and the heady smell of aviation fuel. Jake took the keepie-leftie outside the National Sports Stadium at fifty. Gaby felt the back end begin to aquaplane and grabbed a handhold.

‘It missed Mount Kenya by a hair and came down just west of Treetops. Nyeri’s fucked. That’s why you can’t move for troops. The UN’s mobilizing everything it’s got for a mass evacuation. They’ll never do it, this isn’t rounding up a few thousand Wa-Chagga banana growers into resettlement camps. It’s one of the most densely populated parts of Kenya up there. In the end, why bother? What it comes down to is the big veto power members don’t like the idea of First Contact with aliens being in the hands of what they consider a bunch of bloody savages. When John Alien comes walking out of the Chaga, they want the first human he meets to be a big beautiful blond Aryan US or Russian Marine with a very big gun. Kenyan politicians are getting fed up with being Uncle Tommed and want UNECTA research resources directed toward human interaction with the Chaga. Your Werther piece gave them ammunition – it isn’t an automatic death sentence in there.’

They had left the military machine behind now. The only vehicles on the road were news company 4×4s, hurtling along the avenue in waves of spray. On either side the townships huddled in the dark beneath the spring rain.

‘Nairobi’s dead,’ Gaby said, sobering up rapidly.

‘It’s only forty miles north of here. How long’s that, three, four years? The Nyandarua Event and the Kilimanjaro Chaga have the city in a pincer.’

Cars were tailed twenty back at the airport entrance while blue-helmets checked accreditations. A white soldier with his head shaved within a millimetre of the bone waved the SkyNet Landcruiser through. Rain fell in strict diagonals through the sodium floods. Staff in UN white with clipboards ran around trying to find the owners of the vehicles that had been abandoned at the edge of the taxiways. CBS. STAR. Tass. UPI. Those were the names on the 4×4s. Jake drove along the perimeter road until he saw SkyNet logos. A blue beret tried to move him on.

‘Fuck off,’ he said under the thunder of a taxiing jet, smiling sweetly.

All of SkyNet East Africa were gathered around the open tailgate of T.P.’s Landcruiser from where he tried to direct strategy. Gaby nodded to Tembo, fastening the velcro seal of his waterproof camera cover. Faraway, who could see over any crowd, waved back. Abigail Santini caught Gaby’s eye and smiled politically. Antonovs passed slowly, throwing up swathes of sound and spray from their Coanda Effect engines. Gaby had never heard anything so loud.

‘Right, we’re all here,’ T.P. bellowed. ‘Jake, with me and the camera crew. Everyone else, you know what you’re doing. When we get down, there’ll be transport to meet us. For Christ’s sake don’t get split up. What’ll you do?’

The ritual reply was lost in the scream of a big Tupolev lifting off into the rain. Women in wet combats and blue berets were already shepherding the non-Anglophone correspondents and their camera teams to a waiting Antonov. Turbofans powered up. Gaby scraped wet hair out of her eyes.

‘T.P.! What about me?’

He could not have looked more confused had his car spoken to him.

‘Jesus. Gaby. Yes. Important job for you to do. As well as the Tolkien fly-by, there’s a press conference been called down in Kajiado regional H.Q. Jake was scheduled to cover it, but with this blowing up, well, it’ll have to be an on-liner. You and Ute take a car and cover it for me, will you? The office will patch me through to Nyeri if it’s anything cosmos-shaking. I’m relying on you, Gaby. What am I doing?’

Abigail Santini was beckoning from the passenger door of the airplane. Both engines were up to speed, the pilot was checking flaps and ailerons.

‘You’re not taking me.’

‘Someone has to mind the shop. It’s a big thing I’m trusting you with, Gaby. What is it?’

‘Fuck you, T.P. Costello!’ she shouted but the words were obliterated by a passing aircraft. ‘This is not fair.’.

He turned half-way to the plane to wave bye-bye.

‘This is not fucking fair!’

The door closed behind him. The Antonov moved off its stand. There were Cyrillic letters stencilled under the cockpit window. Dignity. Slip-stream blew Gaby’s hair into her face, plastered her wet clothes to her body.

‘You owe me for this, Costello.’

She watched Oksana turn the Antonov on to the main runway. The aircraft went up very quickly, very suddenly, like a high jumper. She watched it climb until its lights were lost in the rain clouds, then went back to the 4×4 and realized she did not have a clue how to get home again.

14

One and a quarter billion kilometres distant, a voice whispered and something woke to life. You could call it an angel and not be far wrong. It was attenuated, diaphanous. It had golden wings. It flew through unending darkness. It had a fragile beauty, but it was strong; it had come far, flown fast. Like the angels of Yahweh, its only thought was to do the bidding of its master. Like them, it was a messenger.

Six years before, the voice had given it a mission and set it on its long, curving course. The voice had spoken again and sent it to sleep. In its sleep it flew on, into the big dark. Now it had come so far that the voice took over an hour to reach it.

NASA space-probe Tolkien awakened and readied itself for its task. Its obedience had not been diminished by its long flight and sleep. Camera booms were deployed, lenses trained on the object of enquiry. Solar wings of crumpled gold foil unfolded, though so far from the sun they could only supplement the nuclear batteries. Thruster pods cleared their throats; experiment packages were readied. Twenty different senses were tuned to the still-invisible target. Tight-beam communication dishes sought the distant bright speck of Earth.

Like an angel, the robot had no curiosity and no will. It was not distracted by the titanic beauty of Saturn. Gaudy rings and the eye-catching opal swirls of gas storms the size of continents could not tempt it from its duty. The Iapetus fly-by must be done right the first time. Celestial mechanics allowed one shot and one only.

It had flown far, it had flown fast, but Events had overtaken it. First the Hyperion Event, for which a new vehicle had been commissioned and tasked six months behind Tolkien. Orbital mechanics had been less friendly to it: the relative positions of the planets off whose gravities it caroomed like a billion dollar eight ball meant it would arrive in the Hyperion Gap two years after Tolkien rounded Saturn and fell into the great dark. It too had been overtaken: the Kilimanjaro Event had eclipsed both space missions. No need to cross the solar system for a ten minute peep at the mysterious and alien. The mysterious and alien was approaching across the plains of Africa and the selvas of South America and the rainforests of the Indonesian archipelago at fifty metres every day.

Ten hours from Iapetus Tolkien commenced long-range mapping. Analysts studied the pictures squeezing from their colour printers, but the black moon held its secrets close. The NASA scientists had waited six years. A few hours more was nothing. You learned patience in space science. There would be better later. Perilune would bring Tolkien within five hundred kilometres of the satellite’s surface at a relative velocity of sixty kilometres per second. Detail began to resolve at T-3600. Backscatter from Saturn and the light of a sun so distant it was no more than a brilliant star showed the visible surface to have a highly complex, almost fractal structure. At T-2000 the infra-red cameras produced their first heat-maps of the facing hemisphere. As one wit was to comment, the infra-red profile of Iapetus was indistinguishable from that of a pepperoni pizza. Localized hot-spots floated on a sea of semi-liquid crustal matter overlain with a web of cooler unidentified material. Scattered across the temperature-landscape were small, hard, round concentrations of cold. Like black olives.

Whatever the meaning of these structures, Iapetus was a good sixty Kelvins warmer than it should have been.

The high-resolution cameras at T-500 showed new mysteries. The CCD images slid out of image enhancement line by line. The scientists watched. They saw canyons ten kilometres deep filled with liquid that could not possibly remain in that state in an environment like that of Iapetus. They saw obsidian atolls lift ringwalls thousands of metres above the surface of the moon. They saw these atolls bristle with black filaments hundreds of metres long. They saw nets of black tendrils creep laboriously across the granulated black surface. They saw black flowers the size of cities slowly blossom. They saw sheer black surfaces open like wounds and things for which language has no names grow forth. They saw black jellyfish the size of Pacific nation states rise from the hot spots into the wisps of nitrogen atmosphere. They saw slow waves cross oceans of restless black scales. They saw pylons like skyscrapers push from the crusted surface and unfold into sprays of black feathers. They saw the black feathers ripple in a wind that could not exist, and turn toward the distant, unseen sentience of Tolkien. Black. All black.

They could not comprehend it, but they knew what they were seeing. They knew where they had seen this before, but they did not dare say.

At T-0 Tolkien released its surface impact probes. As Bilbo, Frodo and Sam fell toward Iapetus, Tolkien spun on its axis and raked the satellite with a fan of single-shot X-ray lasers. Spectrum analysers read the light from the wounded moon while atmospheric, gravitic and electromagnetic data streamed back from the artillery-shell sized surface probes. Then Tolkien went into occultation behind the moon and the stream of information was temporarily halted. At T-240 the probe emerged from the radio shadow and began to bit-cram full data download earthwards while there was still power in its batteries. Transmission time was twenty-nine hours, seven minutes. On the third planet out from the sun, Tolkien’s masters sifted and analysed and interpreted the information from Saturn and wondered whether to tell humanity what humanity had already guessed. The stuff, the black stuff covering Iapetus. It was Chaga.

Then the voice spoke one final time and Tolkien went silent as Saturn’s gravity whipped it like a top and spun it out of the solar system. The good and faithful angel fell faster than any human-made object toward the galaxy clusters in Virgo. By the time it felt the tug of another gravitational field, the earth would be a sterile cinder pressed close to a bloated red sun. Any voice that woke Tolkien from its Big Sleep would not be human.

15

The sun was high. The day was hot and clear. The sky was cloudless, an intense hot blue that confounds sense of distance. The rain had passed into the hot dry north. The steady wind had sucked the brief rains dry and returned the earth to dust. Today, as every day, the road was crowded with refugees. Fifty thousand people were moving on it, whole tribes were going north at the speed of a Nissan pick-up, or a cattle truck, or a donkey cart, or their own hard, bare feet. Some slapped emaciated cows on with sticks. Some tried to keep their goats from straying under the wheels. Stripped, fire-blackened hulks of vehicles littered the verges, abandoned when they broke down or simply ran out of fuel. The Kajiado road was a fifty-mile wrecking yard. Bands of thin, tall youths in T-shirts advertising fertilizer scavenged the wrecks. The little that was left they piled in the backs of only slightly less decrepit pickups. Dark specks in the heat haze that shimmered up from the open lands beyond the road were refugees striking cross-country for the highway. A tall, narrow plume of dust was a vehicle. A wide low plume was livestock. No plume at all was people on foot with all their possessions rolled up in mats carried on their heads.

White military humpies with stars-and-stripes fluttering briskly from their whip antennae hurtled as fast as they could along the road. They had no care for other road users, on foot or hoof or on wheels. They threw the dust of their passage over all equally. Every mile or so an armoured personnel carrier was pulled over onto the soft shoulder. Blue-helmets in RayBans watched indolently over the lines of refugees and rested their bare arms on their hideously powerful weapons. Far less frequent were the aid stations of the UNHCR: a couple of Landrovers and a canvas awning under which old men with big eyes and big teeth looked you in the face and hairless dusty babies fumbled for their mothers’ withered teats. If you told them humans had sent machines to the moons of Saturn they would have laughed painfully and slapped their thin thighs.

It was a fine and beautiful day, and Gaby McAslan was driving down the road south to Kajiado. Ute Bonhorst was beside her. The top was down and the radio on. The radio played a western rock classic, as it did sometimes between the African music. The two women sang along with it. The music and the big expensive car insulated them from the epic misery of the road. Gaby’s was not a profession renowned for its compassion, and Africa had begun to brutalize her.

Past Isinya, a party of young men stood by the side of the road grouped around a dead lion.

Kajiado had grown out of the intersection of the road south to Tanzania with the railroad to the soda flats at Lake Magadi. John Wayne riding high in the saddle would have felt right at home; for its high-plains spirit, and for its vernacular architecture. The town’s shops and businesses were set back behind wooden boardwalks that followed the slope of the main street in a long shallow flight of steps. At the Masai stores at the top of the town all things needful to human being, and many things not, could be bought. A few Masai could still be found lingering in the porch; tall and beautiful and satanically arrogant. The spears they carried had each cost a lion its life. The hot wind from the plains blew their ochre robes up around them, baring their lean thighs, buttocks and genitals. Such was their pride, they did not care. At the bottom of the hill was the transit camp. There was no community in southern Kenya that did not have a transit camp attached to it like a mutated Siamese twin. Kajiado’s was smaller than most, and shrinking every day. The Chaga was too close. Townsfolk and camp people alike would be dispossessed soon. The wealthier landowners and professionals had already moved out. Every day a store would board up or shutter down, never to open again. Last week Kajiado’s only automated teller machine had been yanked out of the wall of the National Bank by a rope attached to a Peugeot matatu. There were no longer enough police to investigate the crime.

UNECTA was the only business in town that was thriving. For a while; then it would have to put up its boards and shutters and go like all the others and leave Kajiado to the Chaga creeping across the railroad tracks and up the sloping main street and in through the door of the Masai stores. Until that time, Southern Regional Headquarters Kajiado was the advance position for UNECTA’s administrative arm, co-ordinating the mobile bases spaced at the four cardinal points around Kilimanjaro.

Unlike Kajiado town, the regional headquarters had been designed to be abandoned. Architecture varied on themes of pre-fabricated units, inflatable domes and the ubiquitous Kenyan cinder-block. It sprawled. Land is cheap when it is going to be taken away from you. The military had built a big, expensive base; there was a well-equipped small airport and servicing facilities for the research division’s field equipment, from Chaga-proof cameras to the tractor units that carried the mobile laboratories.

The guard on the perimeter wire fence checked Gaby’s and Ute’s identities on a PDU and sent them around the back of Kajiado’s only building to exceed two stories; a massive, windowless fifty-foot block marked Unit 12. It was a object of some significance: it had been painted olive drab and ringed round with razorwire concertinas. Kajiado Centre’s conference hall was the disused town cinema. There were still posters for the last picture show, a double bill of The Ten Commandments and Jackie Chan in Streetfight in Old Shanghai. The interior was a lurid red, which, with the curved roof and walls, made Gaby think of an open mouth. There were cigarette burns on the flip-down seats. Many of the rows were already filled. Gaby knew enough faces to recognize them all as junior staff. The major players were up at Nyandarua getting their faces on the pale blue screen.

A big UNECTAfrique horns-and-mountain symbol hung where Charlton Heston had once held up the tablets of stone. On the stage beneath it was a long table with three chairs, three notepads with pens, three carafes of water with glasses upturned over them and twenty microphones parcel-taped to the edge of the table.

Three people entered from the side of the stage and sat down. The murmur in the cinema ceased. On the left sat a Mediterranean woman in a smart suit that would very quickly get sweaty and creased in the stifling heat of the cinema. On the right sat the token Kenyan, who knew it, and said by the bored, distant way he played with his notepad and pen that he was fucked if he was going to answer any questions from the wazungu. In the middle sat the man who had come running up to Gaby McAslan at the cashpoint on Latema Road, kissed her on the mouth and thus saved her from being conned out of five hundred shillings on her first day in Nairobi.

‘The one in the middle, who is he?’ Gaby whispered.

‘Dr Shepard,’ Ute Bonhorst answered, ‘Research Director of Tsavo West.’

Gaby rested her chin on the back of the empty seat in front of her and closely watched this man pour himself a glass of water, take a sip, and look to his associates.

‘OK. If everyone’s here, we’ll make a start,’ he said. She remembered the Jimmy-Stewart Mr Middle-America accent. She remembered the luminous blue eyes. ‘There will be press releases at the back later with full technical specifications. Can everyone hear me all right? At the back?’ Ute Bonhorst shouldered a U-format camcorder with the SkyNet logo on the side. Gaby checked the battery levels on her disc recorder. ‘Good to see so many of you. Typically, we’ve been upstaged by the Chaga deciding to pull a PR coup up at Nyeri. And the Tolkien probe gave us more than we’d bargained for. So thanks for coming to see the sideshow.’ There was a murmur of polite laughter. He introduced himself and the people on either side of him. They spoke briefly. Dr Shepard then outlined the substance of the press conference.

Each of the four ChagaWatch bases fulfilled a different purpose. Ol Tukai, twelve miles to the south-east, specialized in taxonomy and classification. Tinga Tinga, retreating at fifty metres per day over the Engaruka plains towards the Ngorongoro, attempted to unravel the Gordian knot of Chaga symbiotic ecology. South of the mountain, Moshi base moved across the great empty Lossogonoi Plateau and studied the climatic and environmental effects of an alien biosphere on East Africa, and East Africa’s adaptations to it. And Tsavo West crawled through the great game reserve from which it took its name toward the fragile Nairobi-Mombasa road and rail line and delved into cellular and molecular biology. It was there that the discovery was made, down among the atoms in the country of quantum uncertainty.

There was a bridge between terrestrial and Chaga-life. It was the chemistry of the carbon atom, but the Chaga was not built on the chains and lattices of earth-bound carbon forms. Its engineering was that of the sixty-atom sphere of the Buckminsterfullerene molecule; its organic chemistry a three-dimensional architecture of domes, arches, cantilevers, tunnels and latticed skeletons.

‘The molecules are immensely complicated, hundreds of atoms in length,’ Dr Shepard said, waving the red dot of his laser pointer across the screen where wire-frame spheres cannoned off each other and convoluted molecular intestines twined and wriggled.

I bet that is the only suit he has, Gaby McAslan thought.

‘Locked into hollow cylinders, they become essentially machines for processing atoms. Molecular factories. This is the mechanism by which the Chaga absorbs and transmutes terrestrial carbon – in vegetable form, mostly, but as you all know, it’s not averse to the odd juicy complex hydrocarbon or polymer. The fullerene worms break the chemical bonds of terrestrial organic components into the equivalent of short peptide chains – analogies tend toward the biological, for obvious reasons. We’re talking, in a sense, about a form of life on a smaller scale than the fundamental units of terrestrial biology; each of these smart molecules is the equivalent of a cell. The fullerene molecules pass the broken-down terrestrial molecules through their guts, for want of a better expression, in the process adding new atoms, realigning molecular bonds; building copies of themselves, imprinting them with information. In a sense, it’s a kind of alien DNA, processing basic amino-acids and inorganic compounds into the pseudo-proteins of Chaga biochemistry.

‘Essentially, the Chaga is one mother of a buckyball jungle.’

Gaby wrote that on the back of her hand. Dr Shepard sat down. The Mediterranean-looking woman stood up. She had a French accent. Gaby did not hear one word she spoke in it. She was watching the way Dr Shepard sipped his water and inspected his fingernails and doodled on his notepad and folded little scraps of paper into origami frogs and flapping birds. She watched him scan the faces in the auditorium. His Paul Newman blue eyes met hers for an instant and passed.

You don’t know me, but I know you, Gaby McAslan thought.

After the token Kenyan had said his few words, Dr Shepard asked if there were any questions. Gaby was first on her feet.

‘OK, at the back, red-haired woman with the interesting T-shirt.’

‘Gaby McAslan, SkyNet on-line.’ Ah, maybe you do know me now, or at least wonder whether you might know me, but you are not certain. ‘From what I understand of fullerenes, they’re the dominant molecular form of carbon in deep-space hydrocarbon clouds. Does this astronomical fact have any relation to what Tolkien showed us out at Iapetus?’

If the face does not help you remember, will the voice, the accent? She did not know why it was so important for him to remember. But she wanted deeply to impress him.

‘As far back as the Kilimanjaro Event, speculative connections were being made between the Chaga and the Iapetus Occultation. It may have been a shock seeing the images that came back from Tolkien, but, to the scientific community at least, it wasn’t a surprise. What our research has proved is that we are encountering a highly adaptive and successful organism, one which, by virtue of its ability to engineer molecules, can create an ecological niche for itself anywhere it can find raw materials. The fullerene worms are quasi-stable and can rapidly switch molecular structures. In non-technical language, they can reprogram themselves to change with their environment. So, theoretically, there is no objection to them having evolved a form that can colonize the moons of Saturn, or, if they can adapt to as inimical an environment as that, anywhere else in the universe, for that matter.’

‘So the Chaga is not native to the Saturnian system?’ Gaby asked, beating a dozen raised hands by not having sat down while Dr Shepard answered her question.

‘Certainly not Iapetus. And we would very much doubt that it originated in or around the Hyperion Gap, either. If we’d an unlimited budget and our own HORUS orbiter, or even a spare SSTO, we’d very much like to send a probe for a sneaky look under Titan’s cloud-layer, not because it may have evolved there, but because it may have used it as a way-station on the way to Iapetus, and ultimately, Earth. There’s barroom speculation about Saturn; if not the planet itself, perhaps in the ring system. The planet pumps out a lot of energy, though personally I’m not convinced it’s enough to power up so complex and energy-heavy a chemistry. Off the record, my private theory is that it does not originate from our solar system.’

Journalists were on their feet, fingers raised. Gaby sneaked in a parting shot.

‘Could this have evolved naturally?’

‘Are you asking me are the Iapetus and Earth Chagas artefacts of an alien intelligence?’

Their eyes met across a crowded Kajiado cinema.

‘Are there aliens in spaceships with lots of windows in them?’

She made him smile. It was a major triumph. He was one of those men whose smiles so utterly transform their faces they seem like two people.

‘On the strength of the evidence to hand, I’d give a reluctant “no”. No UFOs landing on the White House lawn. Well, that kind of depends on where, and whether, the Chaga is going to stop. Have you heard of Von Neumann machines?’

‘Machines that move from planet to planet building copies of themselves.’

The Chaga may be a highly sophisticated Von Neumann machine. Starships the size of molecules. In a sense, what is a living cell but a Von Neumann machine programmed by its own DNA? And we said earlier that the Chaga “memes”, as we call them, can be thought of as living molecules. As to whether there is a guiding intelligence behind it – I’m blue-skying here – Von Neumann machines can easily outlive the civilization that produces them. The designers of the Chaga – if they exist at all – could have become extinct a million years ago. But is there any reason why our particular brand of behaviour and problem-solving should be the sole criterion of “intelligence”? Our intelligence may be so particular to us that we cannot recognize that something truly alien may be “intelligent”. We’re all thinking in terms of little men with big heads and glowing eyes. Anthropomorphic chauvinism. Perhaps the aliens are the Chaga, or have become the Chaga, over aeons of travel. Then again, as you said, the first fullerenes were deduced from the profiles of interstellar molecular clouds, so perhaps the Chaga, or, I should say, the Chaga-memes, the fullerene-machines, are a form of life that has evolved in interstellar space. But there may be another level of chauvinism: we assume that within any sufficiently complex system, there must be intelligence. That’s how God got invented, I suspect. The Chaga may just be dumb, fecund life, with no more intelligence than the lilies of the field, or a condomful of sperm.

‘Thank you for asking that. I enjoyed your question. OK, Jean-Marie Duclos.’

Gaby did not hear the French television journalist’s question, any of the questions that followed. She had what she wanted from Dr Shepard. After the press conference, when the others were filing out and picking up their hard-copy technical releases and blinking in the bright sunlight outside, she came cantering down the steps to the front.

‘Can I sound-bite you on “buckyball jungle”?’

‘If you put a little “TM” superscript after it,’ Dr Shepard said. ‘Or is it an “R” in a circle? You can sound-bite anything you like. I prefer fullerene machine.’

Gaby shrugged to say that it was not quite so aurally digestible. Dr Shepard hesitated as people do when they need to say something that will embarrass them if it is not right.

‘Your accent sounds familiar.’

‘Northern Ireland.’ She baited the hook. ‘You saved my ass once.’

He must work it out himself.

He worked it out himself.

‘The con gang. What was it?’

‘Persecuted students trying to escape to Mozambique. They’d got you with the Rwandan refugee one.’

‘God, yes. And I …’

‘You kissed me.’

He blushed. It was a comfortable, old-fashioned thing to see in a man.

‘Gaby McAslan,’ he said. ‘You do those “And Finally” pieces for SkyNet On-line. I liked the one about the bicycle pump fetishists; the guy down in Dar Es Salaam who thought he’d go one better and shoved a compressed air-line up his ass and blew his colon out through his navel. You’ve caught the real spirit of Africa in those stories. Magic realism is plain old day-to-day living here.’

‘I’ve moved on a bit since the “And Finally” pieces.’

‘The Peter Werther interview. That was quite a coup.’

‘Thank you.’ The moment presented itself. ‘Listen, I’d very much like to do an interview with you; would you have any objections to talking over lunch? There’s supposed to be a place does very good Indian food here, if it hasn’t closed up.’

‘There still is. It does. The Tipsi Café. Regrettably, I’ll have to pass on your generous offer; straight after this they’re flying me up to the Nyandarua Impact Zone.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘In fact, they’re holding the plane for me right now. If you want an interview, it’s simplest to get in touch directly with Tsavo West.’ He scribbled a number on the back of Gaby’s hand, next to ‘buckyball jungle’. ‘Don’t wash that. I’ll be up in Nairobi for the Ambassador’s Independence Day Hootenanny, but I don’t suppose you’ll be there?’

The very rich, the very beautiful, the very glamorous and the very influential were invited to the US Ambassador’s Fourth of July party. No one less than the rank of station head, or chief correspondent.

‘You never know,’ Gaby said. ‘Life’s full of surprises.’

‘I reckoned that.’ Dr Shepard packed up his stuff in an impact-plastic briefcase and pulled an overnight bag from under the table. ‘By the way, might I say, it was an ass exceedingly well worth saving.’

16

The Tipsi Café was one of those refreshing places that surpass their reputations. The food was wonderful, generous, cheap and served unpretentiously on plastic plates. Everything tasted faintly of charcoal. Over goat sagh, lentils, two vegetable curries, chutneys and chapattis, Gaby picked Ute Bonhorst for everything she knew about Dr Shepard.

‘He’s forty-one, comes from Lincoln, Nebraska. His primary degree was at Iowa State in molecular biology; he graduated in 1988, did his doctorate at UCSB in biophysics and the speculative exobiology of interstellar clouds. When UNECTA received its UN charter in 2006, he was immediately head-hunted.’

‘I don’t want his curriculum vitae, tell me about the man.’ Gaby summoned two more Tuskers.

‘You have to call him Shepard. He has a first name but he never uses it and no one knows what it is. He’s divorced – it was a messy affair, I think – he has two boys who come out to stay with him twice a year. Currently he is unattached. Which makes him the most sought-after male in East Africa. Abigail Santini has been trying to get him into her bed for almost two years without any success. Are you thinking of joining the line?’

‘He interests me, that’s all.’ From the look she received, Gaby knew Ute did not believe her. She was not sure she believed herself, but this Shepard did seem to be the only truly solid person she had met in Africa. White person. Tembo, Faraway, Mrs Kivebulaya, even Haran the Sheriff and Dr Dan sweating with fear in his executive class seat; these were real, firmly rooted in the landscape, casting dark shadows. The African light was too bright for white people; it shone through them, it bleached them pale and insubstantial. Dr Shepard stood full in the light and was not annihilated by it. He threw his shadow across the land, his feet were firmly planted in it, like the Masai standing with arrogant nobility outside the stores at the top of the town.

The decision was made while waiting at the crossing for the daily chemical train to pass. In front of the SkyNet Vitara was an open truck. Men were seated in the open back. Seeing white women in an open top car, an old man reached under his robe and began to masturbate gently, unselfconsciously. The train cleared the crossing. The truck turned left, toward Nairobi. Gaby turned right toward the Chaga.

‘What are you doing?’ Ute Bonhorst said, alarmed.

Gaby pushed the 4×4 into top gear.

‘I’m going to see the Chaga. I’ve been three months in Nairobi working with this thing, living it, eating it, drinking it, sleeping with it, dreaming of it, and now I’m this close I’m not going to let a few miles stop me.’

‘We have no clearances.’

‘That won’t be a problem. Trust me.’

The road south was wide and swept over the low hills of the thorn scrub country. There was not another vehicle. Gaby pressed her right foot to the floor and pushed the Suzuki to its limits. Her long frustration went out of her like a colossal sigh, months deep, and the vacuum it left was filled with the sudden vertigo that comes when you find you have the courage and freedom to do what you most want in the world. She wished this road could go on for ever; at the same time she could not wait for it to bring her to her destination.

They ran into the checkpoint five miles south of Ilbisil. Three pig-ugly South African Defence Force APCs were pulled across the road. A black soldier in a blue helmet with green, blue and black ANC flashes on his lapels waved them down.

‘Good afternoon, ladies. Could you show me some identification, please?’

He passed the driving licenses and SkyNet accreditations to an officer sitting at a camp table on the verge, eating his lunch. While the officer studied the documents, the soldier walked slowly around the car, looking at trivial things in a vaguely intimidating way, as bored soldiers at checkpoints do.

‘Can I ask where you’re going?’ the soldier asked, growing tired of the game of vague intimidation.

‘Oh, south.’ Gaby waved her hand in the general direction of Tanzania. ‘We want to have a look at the Chaga.’

‘Sightseeing?’

‘You could say that.’

The officer wiped his mouth with a bush-camouflage napkin and came over to the Vitara. He and the soldier spoke briefly in Xhosa.

‘Can I see your pass authorizations, please?’

Gaby opened her bag and with one hand folded a thousand shilling note in the way Faraway had taught her was best for bribing policemen. She slipped it palm down to the South African officer. He glanced at it and passed it back to Gaby.

‘That is not a pass authorization.’ The officer looked up into the sky, then at Gaby. ‘Excuse me, but could you tell me what time it is?’

‘You’ve got a watch on your wrist,’ Ute said.

‘The officer’s may be broken,’ Gaby said, unfastening her Swatch. ‘Mine keeps good time, see?’ She passed it to the officer.

‘Very good time indeed.’ He slipped the Swatch into a button-down breast-pocket. ‘I would give you a word of advice. For your own safety, we do not recommend that you go any further down this road than the Mile 70 marker post.’ The officer saluted and smiled beautifully. Gaby put the Vitara into gear, waved and drove off.

‘You bribed that officer.’ Ute Bonhorst’s innate Teutonic respect for authority was outraged.

‘Certainly did,’ said Gaby McAslan, child of an ungovernable people.

Beyond the checkpoint the road dipped down into a river valley and climbed abruptly. At the top of the valley side it swung to the right. The car took hill and bend easily.

And there it was.

Gaby pulled in under a great baobab. She got out of the car and went to the edge of the road where the land fell away to the Amboseli plains. She squatted on her heels and looked at the Chaga. The Zeiss-Leica optomolecules bonded to her corneas darkened.

In her summer on the west coast of the United States, she had detoured to the Grand Canyon. The bus had left her at the door of one of the lodges. In the dark, low-beamed interior she had found a sign, quite small, easily overlooked, that read ‘To canyon’. Prepared for an anti-climax, she had followed it through a small door and found herself on the very brink. Twenty cubic miles of airspace gaped at her feet. She had stood, gripping the rail, for ten minutes, stunned motionless.

The Grand Canyon had confounded all her cynicisms and exceeded all her expectations.

The Chaga did the same. Nothing she had seen or heard or learned about it could prepare her for the physical reality. It was too real, too big. Too close.

She felt as if she were at the edge of an ocean. There was a nearer shore but no further one. To Gaby under the baobab tree, it went on forever. The difference between the Chaga and the dry acacia scrubland in its path was more than the difference between savannah and rainforest. It was the difference between land and ocean, between sun and moon.

The satellite photographs had shown her the Chaga on the geographical scale but they could not capture the sense of vastness and inevitability you felt when you stood before it, not looking down with the eyes of God, but out with the eyes of humans. From space it was a dark, insanely patterned roundel painted on to the map of Africa. From a baobab tree two miles from terminum, as the line of advance was formally known, it was as if a window had been opened to an alien planet. If you were to walk down this ridge and through the thorn bush and cross that line, you would be transported instantly to some terrible place galaxies away.

When you stood in its path, you understood how completely alien it was to everything you knew. Its colours were alien. They mixed and matched with each other, but they strained the eye. They did not seem as if they were meant to be seen lit by tropical sun and set against the earth-coloured landscape of this southern land.

Its shapes were alien. Its skyline could never be mistaken for the canopy of a terrestrial forest. It piled too high, too sharply, too steeply, as if a different gravity applied there. No growing thing was that flat, that wide, that bulbous, that angular, that convoluted. Its line offended the eye. There was something of the coral reef in it, and something of the tropical rainforest, and something of the polar berg-scape; there was something architectural and something industrial, planned and unconstrainedly chaotic. The Chaga was all these, none of these, more than these. Gaby recalled what Faraway had said on chicken-gizzard night on Tembo’s verandah. You could not see it, because there was nothing in it you could recognize. All you could see of it was what reminded you of what you already knew.

Its smells were alien: unfamiliar musks and ketones and esters and complex lipids; the pheromones of the Chaga’s long, slow copulation with itself. It smelled of aromatics more exotic than any from the spice gardens of Zanzibar. It smelled of the fruit of Eden. It smelled of the sun-seared rocks of Mercury and the icefloes of Triton. It smelled of the body secretions of the lover of your darkest dreams. It smelled of the birth of stars, the death of galaxies and God’s armpits. It smelled of the ocean of unknowing.

Like the sea, it had a tide. The coming in of that tide across the Amboseli plain was too slow to be seen from Gaby’s perspective, but she observed the secondary effects of the advance. Terminum was not a sharp demarcation but a zone of transition. Only what was within and without were definite. On the line, Earth and Chaga were superimposed, like some metaphysical derivation of wave-function theory. At the very edge patches of olive, purple and crimson mottled the yellowed grass. As you moved inward, the patches merged into a multi-coloured carpet interrupted by occasional clumps of grass, scrub or trees. Further still and the first Chaga forms appeared: spires and fingers of pseudo-reef emerged from the mosaic of carpet-growth and terrestrial vegetation. A mile beyond terminum only the trees remained, holding their umbrella-rib branches above the squawling mass of Chaga-life. Gaby watched tall acacias sway and fall, undermined by the voracious alien growth. A mile beyond the felling zone, only the greatest and oldest baobabs resisted the Chaga. With distance they too were lost, enveloped in swathes of tendrils and stands of pseudo-fan corals. Three miles beyond terminum an abrupt transition took place. The reef-growth exploded into smooth columns that rose sheer three hundred metres before unfolding into a dense canopy of burgundy feathers. Only the white palms of the hand-trees rose higher, opening begging fingers to the sun.

Gaby could not see what lay beyond the great uplift of forest. It was a bright blur. Nothing more. The Chaga rose gently toward the foothills of Kilimanjaro, forty miles away. The summit of the mountain was hidden by a cap of cloud.

It was still there. It had waited for her. She had been faithful to it, and it had heard, and been faithful to her. Her star. Her Chaga. She felt tears swell and spill down her face. Two, no more. She wiped them away and reached for the visioncam in her bag. She framed Chaga and distant, cloud-hidden mountain in the screen.

‘Gaby’s videodiary, May 2, 2008,’ she said. She swallowed down the tremor of emotion in her voice. ‘Well, I’m here.’