The following morning saw only Dr. Awolowo blinking painfully, and perhaps regretfully, in the morning sunlight as he and Ranger Hancock headed out of the compound and then east towards the main settlement of the Gu-Nar. Cybil and Amy met for an early breakfast and to plan how they were going to go about visiting the various offices and conservation facilities of the expeditions that were based here. Victor, meanwhile, armed with a tray of fresh coffee and pastries, knocked on the door of the Chief Administrator’s personal secretary.
At the motor pool, things were going less smoothly. Ellie, Bodil and Gregor had been waiting twenty minutes beyond the agreed time for their escort, the previously mentioned Ranger Specialist known only as ‘Weis’. Normally, if this had been her expedition, it would have been the professor who would have been pacing up and down, arms folded, with tight, angry lips holding back her rising annoyance. But she was just a passenger on this trip so all of that was instead being perfectly demonstrated by Ellie. Bodil had to admit that she was sort of enjoying not being in charge for once. Gregor simply stood, with his arms crossed across his barrel chest, calmly watching his boss pacing. Behind the heavy brows and deep set eyes the loyal giant’s mind wandered to wherever it went while his body was in waiting mode.
About then a figure approached from the depths of the long, low building that was the motor pool. His back bent by an enormous pack, a rifle slung over one shoulder and about a dozen grenades strung along a pair of belts that hung around his neck, the figure staggered towards them. As it came closer it became apparent that the enormous backpack wasn’t as big as it looked. The backpack was normal Ranger issue, it was the Ranger himself who wasn’t.
With a grunt and a curse the uniformed figure tipped the backpack, rifle and grenades into the flatbed of a 4x4. He stretched erect, working his shoulder blades to get some feeling back into his arms. Then he held out an arm towards the approximate midpoint between where Ellie and the professor each stood.
“Hi. I’m Weis.”
Bodil held her ground, amused at what was going to be their guide and ‘protector’ on the expedition. Ranger Weis was short, about Ellie’s height. His uniform was creased, patched and very stained. A miasma of throat catching proportions crossed the metre or so separating her from Weis. The unsavoury whole was topped off by a long, thin, rat-like face with a receding line of short black hair. Weis looked like the kind of man you would not like to meet in a dark street… or even a brightly lit one, outside of a police station, during a shift change.
It was Ellie, then, who stepped forward to shake the Ranger’s outstretched hand. While the sweat from Weis’ palm left an unforgettable oily texture on her skin, Ellie looked into the little man’s face, into those dark, intense eyes, and had a sudden gut-tightening déjà vu experience that would haunt her dreams for weeks to come.
“Pleased to meet you Ranger Weis,” Ellie began, giving a minimal handshake before unconsciously wiping her palm down the leg of her trousers. “My name is Ellie, this is Professor Hill and this,” turning to Gregor, “is Gregor.”
Weis smiled and nodded a greeting to each in turn.
“Nice to meet you Proff. Wotcha Gregor, you’re a big un ain’tcha?”
Still rubbing her right hand against her leg, as if a modern day Lady Macbeth, Ellie held out her left hand to the 4x4 they had been assigned.
“Shall we get started? Ranger Weis, you’ll drive I assume.”
The party loaded up their own packs and climbed aboard. Weis in the driver seat. Ellie, reluctantly, next to him while Bodil and Gregor tried to come to some comfortable arrangement on the not quite long enough back seat.
“Buckle up folks.” Weis called out cheerfully while doing just that. “The roads ain’t up to much out there and we might ‘ave to do some, what the manual calls ‘aggressive driving’.”
Weis had one speed, fast. The 4x4’s suspension had long since given up the ghost. This combination resulted in an interesting journey. The ‘aggressive driving’ Weis hinted at involved bulldozing over any creature they happened to meet, and even some Weis had to go out of his way to.
It took them nearly an hour to drive the fourteen kilometres to their destination. Aching, nauseous and just a little blood spattered they climbed out of the vehicle and collected they belongings.
The area they had stopped in was a lush green landscape of bushes and ferns with trees of various sizes fighting to gain a foothold on the debris of the collapsed buildings that were now nothing more than lumpy hills with occasional short lengths of stumpy, ivy covered walls.
In the middle of all this Weis had parked them next to a single large marquee tent of sun-bleached orange canvas. From its centre pole hung a limp azure blue flag decorated with the golden disc and crescent of the Troys. Its newness oddly incompatible against the long service of the marquee. On the other side of the tent was a pick-up. This, too, displayed a small and very new Troy family flag amateurishly attached to the top of its radio antenna. Ellie rolled her eyes but was stopped from making a comment by the throwing back of a tent flap and the sudden appearance of a man in clean, crisp clothing that looked just as out of place as the flags.