The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Jungle All The Way
4.30 pm, Thursday 21st April 1998
'What a shame she didn't get lost in the jungle,' says Ella in a waspish voice as Maddy hoves into view.
Greg raises his eyebrows at this but supports Ella's suggestion to go indoors to compare notes, murmuring to Alan that he should run his little check every time they confer.
One by one the others file into Greg's room as Alan once again sweeps for bugs - the result is again negative.
'I disagree with Iain's suggestion,' he begins. 'I'd say that we interview Fabry last, when we have the most information, and Murdoch just before. Right now, I don't know what I'd ask Fabry. Let's start with Bernard Joubert. He is the head of computing, and I can ask him a lot of the preliminary questions about the basics of the project. We also know that Dr Johannesen made extensive use of the computers, and Joubert is apt to be either an obstacle to learning what Johannesen was using them for, or the key to it.' He pauses. 'Also, I can't put my finger quite on why, but I have this hunch that Joubert is the key to something. Probably just my imagination, but humour me.'
'Something's been bothering me since Jacquie mentioned it at lunch,' says Diana quietly. 'That she found Knut siting dead at his desk. I'm no expert, but I thought that liquid nitrogen was so cold that if anyone fell in a tank of it they'd die instantly.'
'That's right,' says Iain. 'He wouldn't even have time to make a splash.'
'Jacquie is my principal suspect,' puts in Ella. 'It seems odd that she got Catherine to rearrange the lab so drastically, could she be hiding something?'
'It would be a mistake to do any of the interviews before we have the right questions to ask,' continues Greg. 'All of us – Nora and I in particular - should talk to as many of the staffers as we can, and try to gain a deeper understanding of the situation first. If Fabry complains that we're taking too much time, I think that I might be able to get Inspector Helting to lean on him about it - she wants air time. If she helps us, we might give it to her and interview her as well.' A chuckle. 'I do know what that sort of thing can mean to a politician.'
'Yes, Greg, and perhaps you should lay on the dumb telly presenter act so people underestimate you,' says Ella. 'For the rest of the afternoon I think we should generally wander about the compound getting our bearings and pretending to decide what bits we want to film, best angles for shots etc, this might let us eavesdrop on people before they realise we're wandering about.'
'Alan, why don't you quiz Catherine Maxwell about the sensors - check out whether what she says is genuine. Perhaps you could photograph them and fax them through to SITU,' says Nora.
'It's not really my area of expertise,' says Alan doubtfully, 'but I'll do my best.'
'And try to get into Knut's computer, too,' says Ella. 'And you, Iain, can you try and have a look at the probe itself - perhaps there are some extra parts that shouldn't be there.'
'Anyone who's at a loose end,' says Nora brightly, 'check the credentials and history of the EU inspectors and current Demeter staff - including the driver that dropped us off - with SITU.' She looks around at the others. 'Or I could do it myself if no-one else can.'
'I'll try and get a map of the carbets from ESA later,' says Diana. 'And it might be an idea to look into the possibility of hiring a Landrover or something as well. Maybe if we asked Fabry they'd be willing to lend us one for theirs - we could always make up some reason or other to go to Kourou. And I still think it might be worth trying to find those backpackers - someone was at that carbet recently, so perhaps they were in the area when the probe was launched; there doesn't seem to be much security around here, after all.'
Maddy, who is wearing a look of considerable disappointment, finally exclaims 'All we found under the carpet was poo! I'm, like, not a poo-ologist, but it looks, well, quite new. D'you think it could be a clue? A new poo clue?' She looks around blankly, nervously shredding her hibiscus flower. 'I mean, the backpackers must've left really quickly - or, um, maybe the baddies made them disappear. That scientisty woman tried to, like, scare us away from the jungle, so maybe there's something really secret they don't want us to see...'
Another thought strikes her. 'Alan, did you get any personal stuff?' She digs out of her rucksack a dog-eared copy of Understanding Chaos Magic, which has a lurid rainbow-hued fractal cover, and brandishes it under his nose. 'This stuff's way cool! You can do it on computers and everything! It'd work better with something of his, though...'
'We haven't been in yet,' says Alan, much to Maddy's disappointment.
'Well then,' she says firmly, 'this baby is afoot. Or whatever.'
Iain goes to seek out Bernard Joubert, and finds the Frenchman hard at work on the admin block. He is standing up at his terminal, despite having a perfectly good chair behind the desk: and he shifts uncomfortably from leg to leg. He nods curtly at Iain's request. 'Yes, yes, I will set you up accounts - along with the million other things I must do. This will be tomorrow. For now if you need to use the system you can use the name "guest" and the password "password".' He dismisses Iain from his sight with a brusque wave.
Iain, none discouraged, heads back to his room to change, and then visits the centre's multigym, peering first into the cabs of the Landrovers - all have maps of the country, but no large-scale maps of the immediate area.
The gym is well-equipped but looks as though it has rarely been used. Iain has a twenty-minute workout, then changes his shoes and heads out into the jungle to run along the track.
Although the day is now wearing on, the air is still uncomfortably damp and hot, and after another twenty minutes Iain, drenched in sweat, turns back towards the base. He is just a couple of hundred yards away when he sees ahead of him the two young walkers of whom the team caught a glimpse earlier. The woman is staggering along the trail under the man's weight - from the way his hastily-splinted leg is dragging it appears to be broken.
As Iain approaches the woman turns round anxiously. 'Oh, sir, can you help us please? My friend...' She looks shattered. She has a German accent.
Iain at once takes the man's weight from her - he is thin and not all that heavy - draping his arm across his shoulders.
'The space people - do they have a doctor?' she asks.
'I... don't know, we've not seen one... I've only been here a little while,' says Iain, moving on. 'But they could certainly take your friend to Kourou, they've got trucks here.'
'Thank God for that,' she says, her shoulders slumping.
As Iain, his unconscious burden, and the young woman - who has introduced herself as Sioux Stich, and her companion as Spider - enter the compound, they become the focus of excited attention from the ESA staff, who seem to welcome a genuine emergency to distract them from their desks. Fabry can be seen pacing up and down annoyedly, glancing at his watch.
It turns out there is no doctor on site, although Sioux has already given Spider first aid herself in the jungle: it is agreed that he will be driven to Kourou as soon as his fever has been brought down and some food got into him. He is taken to one of the spare bedrooms in the meantime.
'Jacquie,' says Nora, 'I had a question for you about Knut's death. How is it that you said you found him at his desk, but we were told he'd fallen into a vat of liquid nitrogen?'
Jacquie looks momentarily guilty. 'Oh damn, I shouldn't have said that.' She glances about her: Catherine, at the other side of the lab, is busily bent over a piece of equipment and is not listening. 'If was Fabry's idea to say the story about the liquid nitrogen - we were supposed to go along with it.'
'So that bit's not true? He was at his desk?' asks Nora. 'Why would Fabry want to cover that up?'
'Oh, I don't know - I guess he thought if the truth got out ESA would want to close the project down, or something. It was a bit weird, you see.' She shudders. 'This is all off the record, OK?'
Nora nods, reluctantly.
'More than a bit weird. Really weird. Like I say, he was sat at his desk, frozen absolutely solid - like a block of ice, with frost all over him.'
'What? In this climate?'
Jacquie winces. 'I said it was weird, didn't I? And I wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't seen it. And the look on his face... absolute horror. Like he realized what was happening. If you don't believe me, ask the others - everyone saw, pretty much. He was still mostly frozen when we sent him off to Cayenne for the post-mortem.'
'Post-mortem? What did that show?'
'I don't know - you'll have to ask them yourself, if you want to know.' Jacquie's voice is suddenly brisk. She looks up at Nora. 'And I never said any of this, OK? I've got enough to worry about here without Fabry thinking I've blown his story.'
'Dr Fabry, might I have a word with you?' says Greg. 'Not to camera, just a discussion about the sort of things we'll be speaking about.' He is dressed casually, as appropriate to the climate, reserving the suit for when he is on camera.
'Really, Mr Wentworth, I do not know if I have the time - all of these things happening! Today has been almost useless for getting our work done.'
'I'll be very brief, sir - I just wanted to ask you a few questions about your funding experience.'
This proves a subject close to Fabry's heart, and with Greg's governmental experience he is able to ask telling questions. It seems Fabry is genuinely devoted to the Demeter project, but genuinely in fear that if the next deadline is missed, or results in another failure like the previous one, then the project will die. Greg judges that Fabry is not the ideal man to pitch for funding to governmental bodies - he certainly does not create the ideal impression. The only suggestions he has to put on camera to help provide positive publicity for the project concern exposition of its brilliant scientific value: the PR value in its notionally eco-friendly agenda seems to have escaped him.
Greg ties up the discussion by asking about Johannesen and Mahringer. Fabry grinds his teeth rather at the latter name. 'Erika - a brilliant scientist, truly gifted, but she would not take orders! She simply would not see that we must get this probe up into the sky - with her it was always one more experiment, what happens if we do this, I would like to try something else... and I would be saying no, Erika, this is not good enough, hand this instrument to Catherine and let her finish it, and you move on! - but she... oh, well, let us say there were personality clashes. She would have been happier back at her university than at a functional project like this one. Fortunately she had completed enough work that Catherine has been able to continue it and bring it towards completion - although she too is very slow - her inexperience I suppose. Knut, now, a different story, a very dedicated man, a great loss to the project. A truly tragic accident.'
Greg is fairly certain that Fabry's expression of his emotions is sincere.
Iain, once the excitement has died away, realizes that he is extremely sweaty and hot, and goes to the shower block to wash. He has just got the water to the right temperature, though, and is soaking the ache out of his shoulder, when there is the sound of something breaking in the ceiling above his head. At once the water pouring down on him turns jet black.
Iain, alarmed, leaps out of the jet with a yelp as the black water spirals down the plughole. With shaking hand he turns the tap off, although a small trickle of black continues to drip down from the shower head. He can now see that it is caused by a black flow from a hole in the ceiling, where two tiles have parted, just by where the head emerges.
Iain's cries have attracted attention, and he hastily draws a towel about himself as Jacquie Murdoch bursts into the block. She looks as puzzled as he at the sight of the blackness. Jacquie advances and takes some on her finger - she sniffs it, and shows it to Iain. It is composed of a very finely-divided black powder.
'Looks like carbon black,' she says, in a tone of bafflement. 'How could that get up there, though? It's just crawlspace, not storage.'
A few moments pass while other staff come in and start taking the ceiling apart. It is revealed that propped on two joists just above the showers is a polyethylene container holding several kilos of carbon black. It has ruptured, presumably because the hot water pipe passes right underneath it.
'We don't use containers like this,' says Jacquie. 'This is so bizarre...'
Iain pulls his clothes back on.
Greg strolls across the compound to where Maddy is assessing the 'photogeneric' nature of the Landrover shed. 'That special finding ritual you mentioned. What's it do, and how reliable is it? Are there other rituals that you can perform? It helps us all if we know what... unexpected talents we each might have.'
Maddy grins cheekily. 'You can help me with it yourself, if you like - I'll tell you later when I've got what I need.' She taps her nose mysteriously again. 'I don't know about talents - you should have seen me before the implant - but hey, you know, the whole point of magic is that anyone can do anything they want - sort of. Least, that's what I think it is. You just sort of... pull the bits together into the shape you want...' her face screws up with concentration 'and put the energy in, then - bang!'
Alan, logging in as a guest, starts to test the edges of the Demeter security system. He is slightly surprised to find that it is very efficient and capable. Clearly Joubert knows his stuff. Hacking it will be hard work, and maybe even beyond his ability. Certainly it would be easier from the main system rather than this dialup connection. As it is he does not have access to any of the staff's private files, only the glossy front end of the system.
Iain has also logged on and successfully sent a message to his fiancée.
Maddy and Nora have arranged a complex plan for breaking into Johannesen's office, but slightly to their disappointment it is not called for: they are able to walk in freely, with no-one paying them any attention at all. Once inside Nora locks the door and draws the blind, while Maddy starts interestedly to poke through the desk drawers. There is nothing of any very great interest - stationery, computer manuals and so on. There are only four rather pathetic personal touches on the desk: a bag of Norwegian sweets open on the desktop - the packet depicts a rat rooting through a rubbish bin - a small clockwork musical-box, rather old and battered, in painted steel, and two framed photographs, both also rather old. One shows a boy of about ten playing with a Labrador in a garden: the other shows a small troop of Boy Scouts, sat on two benches, their scoutmaster in the middle: one of them is the same boy as in the other picture. Both photographs are black-and-white, and judging by the haircuts might have been taken around thirty years ago.
Nora has fired up the computer, but finds to her chagrin that the files are all password-protected. She tries a few guesses but without luck, and wisely gives up. Perhaps Alan will have an idea.
'Here's something!' exclaims Maddy happily. Tucked at the bottom of the last drawer, as though hidden, is a printed page in Norwegian – it looks like some sort of cargo docket, or shipping note. The only recognizable words are Knut Johannesen's name, the address of the Demeter Project, and the sender company, which is called Statoil and has addresses in Oslo, Bergen and a number of other Norwegian towns.
On the way out Maddy delves in the waste-paper basket, and delightedly comes up with some nail-clippings.
'Chaos magic's brilliant!' says Maddy to Diana, brandishing the toenails. 'It's about, well, attracting coincidences, except they're, like, not really... you just make it up as you go along, so long as it works. And it does - for me, anyway,' she finishes smugly.
Ella, pointedly ignoring Maddy, offers her precious whisky around the other operatives.
'We should probably tell SITU what we've learnt so far,' says Alan.
Maddy has been scribbling on a piece of paper, chewing a strand of hair, and with Diana's help has come up with this sigil:
Apparently, it contains the sentiment 'I want to know who killed Knut Johannesen'.
'Cool! I let the, er, Knutness infuse the drawing...' she folds the paper carefully around the toenails. 'Now, this is the bit you can help in. It'll, y'know, work even better if you all, like do this teeny little thing...' She offers hastily-biro'd copies of the sigil to her suspicious colleagues. 'What I need, right, is your orgone, your sexual energy. You have to hang onto these bits of paper until you... well, you know what. Punish the snake or the monkey, whatever. Anyway, you need to, like, focus on the sigil at the exact moment. Yeah? Then, uh, burn the paper and just forget about it. Easy-peasy.'
She looks round, beaming, but as comprehension has gradually dawned over the other investigators each is holding his or her copy rather gingerly and unenthusiastically.
'Oh. Well, you can do it later if you like - or it'll still work if it's just me.' She absents herself to her room, blushing.
Before dinner Greg spends some time thoughtfully composing an introductory speech for the documentary, summing up the situation briefly and laying out the problems. If they actually stage the shooting of this scene it will add verisimilitude to their cover, he thinks. Besides, depending on what transpires here, it might be possible to turn the footage they film here into a genuine documentary which can actually be aired on the BBC. Acorn Productions need not stay a front.
'It's in my right brain now, bypassed the implant, see? explains Maddy to Diana as they head to dinner. 'It needs a while to, um, percolate.' She explains that she will do the more active part of the ritual tomorrow night, 'once I've thought of it'.
At dinner Maddy sits alongside Irma Helting's secretary. 'I'm Maddy. Are you Dutch? Like the mouse in the windmill and all that?'
'No, I am Italian,' he says in a quiet, pale voice. 'Bertoldo de Santa Croce.' He shakes her hand rather warily.
'I bet you're, like, really good a secretary stuff, yeah? How many words can you type in a minute?'
He edges slightly away from her, smiling weakly. 'Er, about forty, I suppose...'
'Wow! Maybe you could, um, show me sometime? Tonight...?'
At this Bertoldo gulps and rises rapidly from the table, excusing himself.
Maddy looks after him indulgently, then shrugs her skinny shoulders and continues eating.
'Jacquie, what went wrong with the last mission - the one that blew up on the launchpad?' asks Iain at dinner. 'You can use long words if you like - I'm an engineer myself.'
'Oh, right.' She looks at him with more friendliness. 'It was such a stupid thing, a fuel line blockage - not even our fault at all, it was the Ariane boys at Kourou's mess-up. But of course it was our probe that got smashed to bits, and our project that'll be cancelled if the next one doesn't go ahead as planned.'
'Have you taken any extra precautions to make sure it doesn't happen again?'
'Not much we can do at this end, unfortunately - our stuff was all OK. We didn't half give them a roasting, though, I can tell you, they won't make that mistake again in a hurry - but you know how it is, there are some many things that can go wrong on a project like this, so many different people contributing.'
Diana calls up the ESA headquarters in Kourou and asks if they have a map showing the carbets. It is faxed through to her, and she sees that there are three near Demeter: the one she and Maddy saw, another further along the same trail, and a third to the east of the road to Kourou.
That done, she finds Catherine Maxwell as she emerges from her lab into the evening sunlight, shaking her hair back from her face: she looks exhausted. Diana walks alongside her sympathetically for a minute, then asks gently for Erika Mahringer's contact details. Catherine tells her that Erika is now back at the University of Salzburg, and gives her the number.
Ella, who has shed her coat and is now wearing a zebra-print t-shirt and stone-coloured safari shorts above her walking boots, joins Catherine as she turns back into the lab. 'Would you like me to bring you some food? If you're planning to work through dinner, I mean... it'd be no trouble, honestly.'
'Oh, er, I couldn't... it's all right...' Catherine looks confused.
'No really, I insist. You look like you need it.' Ella takes her hand and squeezes it, before heading to the refectory to grab two trays of food. She returns to find Catherine sitting at a lab bench, staring blankly at a piece of circuit board. There is no-one else in the lab.
'Here - you should eat, or you'll fade away.'
Catherine starts listlessly lifting forkfuls to her mouth as Ella chats about nothing in particular, trying to create a relaxed atmosphere. After a little while Catherine perks up slightly, responding to Ella's questions and generally coming back to life.
'It must be difficult, running all this by yourself now.'
'Er, yes, it is, really - I really miss Erika, actually, she was so sweet. And she was really patient. Now she's gone it's all hurry, hurry...' she waves her hands helplessly.
'That Joubert guy - what a creep! What's the story with him?'
'He's been very kind to me...' she shudders abruptly. 'I wasn't sure what to say at first. I thought he was nice, really. But then... when Knut... and Bernard...'
Ella nods encouragingly, although she has no idea what Catherine is saying.
Suddenly Catherine takes her hand. 'Listen, Ella, you mustn't tell anyone this - not even your friends.' She seems genuinely scared. 'I've got to tell someone or else I'll just scream.'
'What is it?'
'Bernard killed Knut - I heard him say he was going to. And now he's going to kill me, too.' She collapses into sobs and falls upon Ella's shoulder.
Ella strokes her hair, muttering 'there, there'. Catherine's sobs die down slightly, and she blurts out 'I heard him say - Knut had been using his computer, or something - he said "I will kill you for this" - and there was such a horrible sound in his voice, you just can't believe.' She bursts into sobs once more. 'And he knows I heard him, I can see in the way he looks at me, and now he's going to kill me too!'