Beyond the Rails, story one by Jack Tyler

* * *

It was late afternoon, and Kestrel had Nairobi in sight when Ellsworth asked Captain Monroe to come below. He didn’t like to leave the deck with his ship on approach, but his faith in Hobbs was complete, so, given the situation at Stephenson’s plantation, he swallowed his irritation to pay his young passenger a visit.

“In here, Captain, please,” Ellsworth called him as he came down the ladder, and disappeared back into his cabin. Monroe followed him, to find microscope, test tubes, a few more pieces he didn’t recognize, and several scholarly tomes spread out on the bed and small writing desk. Ellsworth had been sitting on the only seat left, the pull-down sink.

“You know, you could have used the mess deck for this. You’d have had a lot more room for your equipment.”

“This worked all right. Easier to contain the samples in here. I don’t know what I’m dealing with here, or at least, I didn’t.”

“And you do now?”

“Well, yes and no.”

“You’d better explain that, Doctor.”

“I’ll try.” He pointed out an illustration in a book that looked like a mite or tick, magnified many times over. “This is Batrachochytrium. It’s a fairly rare fungus that has only been observed to date in the northern reaches of the United States, and on into Canada. Likes the cooler weather, you see.”

“So it doesn’t belong here, then?”

“Absolutely not, but that isn’t the most unusual aspect of this.”

“I’m needed on deck, Doctor. I’m afraid I must ask you to come to the point.”

“Quite, Captain. Batrachochytrium is a parasite of frogs and other amphibians. It normally has no effect on plants of any kind at all. Not only that, but it is only active from forty up to about eighty degrees. Below forty, it goes into a state equivalent to hibernation, and above eighty it goes dormant. Just short of a hundred degrees, its nuclei break down, and it is killed by the temperature alone.”

“So, Stephenson can burn his plants, then?”

“Yes, I believe so. Every spore in the bonfire should reach at least a hundred degrees, but there’s this other thing.”

“The frogs.”

“Quite. Either a simple parasitic fungus has somehow acquired the ability to infect a species as far removed from its normal host as you are from a watermelon, and fly to the back side of the planet to take up residence in a clime that is completely unsuited to it in any way, or someone has found a way to modify this little killer to take on a new task.”

“Do you think that’s what’s happened?”

“It’s more likely than the plant doing this on its own. This constitutes a perfect weapon, you know.”

“Meaning?”

“You distribute this in the spring, as the new crop is coming in. It wipes out the crop, ruins the farmer, then the summer heat comes, and it dies out, leaving the land ready to be taken over by whoever has designs on it. Remember, too, we don’t know what all this might attack, just that it does attack coffee. Who are the local political players, Captain? Who might benefit from this?”

“Well, the big rival, of course, is the Prussians. They’re down the coast in Tanganyika. They used to own the coast of Kenya, but they traded it to the Crown for something we had that they wanted. They have towns in the Highlands as well, some not far from here.”

“They’re an obvious candidate, then.”

“Yes, but the Governor General, Blumenthal, is a sensible fellow. Goes out of his way to avoid the sort of little incidents that can get out of hand.”

“Maybe, but the situation between London and Berlin is volatile right now. Who’s to say this Blumenthal has personal knowledge of every spy that Berlin might send here?”

“A good point, Doctor.”

“Any other players in the region?”

“Up the coast is Somalia. Been Arab for centuries. They’ve had a free hand down here, and have never made a move on it, beyond building Mombasa, and they only stopped in there to trade. Recently, the Italians have been showing some interest, but they aren’t here in any numbers. Nothing more than a few surveyors.”

“And either of those powers might be dismayed to see the Crown turning this region into an economic engine. It would only take one man to distribute a bottle of this stuff. Who are these Maasai I’ve been warned about?”

“Native warriors, very belligerent, and with the ferocity to back it up. Without them, we’d be ten years ahead of where we are now. They have taken the best lands by force for centuries, and now we come with our technology, and take those lands from them. They strike back at times and places of their own choosing, and they take every opportunity to send a powerful message. And then there’s the rubies.”

“Ah, Miss Hobbs mentioned those. Are they a factor, then?”

“Absolutely. Quality stones started turning up in the marketplace in Mombasa a few months back. Naturally, the Crown would rather that word had been suppressed, but by the time they could intervene, the damage was done. They’re coming from the hills above Lake Victoria, which we share with the Prussians in Tanganyika, and as you might expect, word is bringing in speculators from all over the world. It’s also the impetus behind this sudden push to extend the railroad up to the Lake. There have already been some miniature naval battles fought between prospectors on the Lake, the Prussians want to redraw the border, and the Maasai’s attitude is, it’s our land, and they’re our stones. You can’t name anybody who wouldn’t benefit from chaos. Present company excepted, of course.”

“Do you jest with me, Captain? Do you believe that one of, what, a half-dozen airships in the region wouldn’t be an asset beyond price in any regional conflict?”

“Point taken. So, Doctor, what are we to do with this knowledge?”

“You may do as you wish, Captain. I’m going to disembark in Nairobi. I’m going to write a detailed report of this incident, and dispatch it by rail to the governor’s residence in Mombasa. He, too, can do as he wishes.”

“And you?”

“I’m going to hire a rig, follow the rails out to the end, and do the job I came here to do.”

“Catalog new plants?”

“Precisely.”

“And the Maasai don’t frighten you?”

“I’ll be near the rails, Captain. Civilization, with technological aid close to hand.”

“It’s hardly safe there, Doctor. The Maasai go where the victims are.”

“The frontiers are always opened by brave souls who are willing to take risks. I’m not just a bookworm, Captain. I know how to fight, and I know how to use my sidearm. The Lord protects the brave.”

“You’d better hope so. I have to get back on deck. I’ll make one more attempt to change your mind over drinks tonight.”

“You’ll not succeed. One more thing, Captain. Next time you see Stephenson, tell him it’s safe to burn those plants. Just make sure to keep the fire hot.”

“That I will.”

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