- Author: Mack Reynolds
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By MACK REYNOLDS
Illustrated by RITTER
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Magazine June 1961.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Someone out there didn't like trees.
He wanted to wreck the Sahara Project—and
he was willing to murder in the process!
One of the auto-copters swooped in and landed. Johnny McCord emptied his pipe into the wastebasket, came to his feet and strolled toward the open door. He automatically took up a sun helmet before emerging into the Saharan sun.
He was dressed in khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirt, wool socks and yellow Moroccan babouche slippers.
The slippers were strictly out of uniform and would have been frowned upon by Johnny's immediate superiors. However, the Arabs had been making footwear suitable for sandy terrain for centuries before there had ever been a Sahara Reforestation Commission. Johnny was in favor of taking advantage of their know-how. Especially since the top brass made a point of staying in the swank air-conditioned buildings of Colomb-Bechar, Tamanrasset and Timbuktu, from whence they issued lengthy bulletins on the necessity of never allowing a Malian to see a Commission employee in less than the correct dress and in less than commanding dignity. While they were busily at work composing such directives, field men such as Johnny McCord went about the Commission's real tasks.
It was auto-copter 4, which Johnny hadn't expected for another half hour. He extracted the reports and then peered into the cockpit to check. There were two red lights flickering on the panel. Work for Reuben. This damned sand was a perpetual hazard to equipment. Number 4 had just had an overhaul a few weeks before and here it was throwing red lights already.
He took the reports back into the office and dumped them into the card-punch. While they were being set up, Johnny went over to the office refrigerator and got out a can of Tuborg beer. Theoretically, it was as taboo to drink iced beer in this climate, and particularly at this time of day, as it was to go out into the sun without a hat. But this was one place where the Commission's medics could go blow.
By the time he'd finished the Danish brew, the card-punch had stopped clattering so he took the cards from the hopper and crossed to the sorter. He gave them a quick joggling—cards held up well in this dry climate, though they were a terror further south—and sorted them through four code numbers, enough for this small an amount. He carried them over to the collator and merged them into the proper file.
He was still running off a report on the Alphabetyper when Derek Mason came in.
Johnny drawled in a horrible caricature of a New England accent, "I say, Si, did the cyclone hurt your barn any?"
Derek's voice took on the same twang. "Don't know, Hiram, we ain't found it yet."
Johnny said, "You get all your chores done, Si?"
Derek dropped the pseudo-twang and his voice expressed disgust. "I got a chore for you Johnny, that you're going to love. Rounding up some livestock."
Johnny looked up from the report he was running off and shot an impatient glance at him. "Livestock? What the hell are you talking about?"
Johnny McCord flicked the stop button on the Alphabetyper. "Where've you been? There isn't a goat within five hundred miles of here."
Derek went over to the refrigerator for beer. He said over his shoulder, "I was just making a routine patrol over toward Amérene El Kasbach. I'd estimate there were a hundred Tuareg in camp there. Camels, a few sheep, a few horses and donkeys. Mostly goats. Thousands of them. By the looks of the transplants, they've been there possibly a week or so."
Johnny said in agony, "Oh, Lord. What clan were they?"
Derek punched a hole in his beer can with the opener that hung from the refrigerator by a string. "I didn't go low enough to check. You can never tell with a Tuareg. They can't resist as beautiful a target as a helicopter, and one of these days one of them is going to make a hole in me, instead of in the fuselage or rotors."
Johnny McCord, furious, plunked himself down before the telephone and dialed Tessalit, 275 kilometers to the south. The girl on the desk there grinned at him and said, "Hello, Johnny."
Johnny McCord was in no mood for pleasantries. He snapped, "Who's supposed to be on Bedouin patrol down there?"
She blinked at him. "Why, Mohammed is in command of patrolling this area, Mr. McCord."
"Mohammed? Mohammed who? Eighty percent of these Malians are named Mohammed."
"Captain Mohammed Mohmoud ould Cheikh." She added, unnecessarily, "The Cadi's son."
Johnny grunted. He'd always suspected that the captain had got his ideas of what a cadi's son should be like from seeing Hollywood movies. "Look, Kate," he said. "Let me talk to Mellor, will you?"
Her face faded to be replaced by that of a highly tanned, middle-aged executive type. He scowled at Johnny McCord with a this-better-be-important expression, not helping Johnny's disposition.
He snapped, "Somebody's let several thousand goats into my eucalyptus transplants in my western four hundred."
Mellor was taken aback.
Johnny said, "I can have Derek back-trail them, if you want to be sure, but it's almost positive they came from the south, this time of year."
Mellor sputtered, "They might have come from the direction of Timmissao. Who are they, anyway?"
"I don't know. Tuareg. I thought we'd supposedly settled with all the Tuareg. Good Lord, man, do you know how many transplants a thousand goats can go through in a week's time?"
"A week's time!" Mellor rasped. "You mean you've taken a whole week to detect them?"
Johnny McCord glared at him. "A whole week! We're lucky they didn't spend the whole season before we found them. How big a staff do you think we have here, Mellor? There's just three of us. Only one can be spared for patrol."
"You have natives," the older man growled.
"They can't fly helicopters. Most of them can't even drive a Land Rover or a jeep. Besides that, they're scared to death of Tuaregs. They wouldn't dare report them. What I want to know is, why didn't you stop them coming through?"
Mellor was on the defensive. He ranked Johnny McCord, but that was beside the point right now. He said finally, "I'll check this all the way through, McCord. Meanwhile, I'll send young Mohammed Mohmoud up with a group of his men."
"To do what?" Johnny demanded.
"To shoot the goats, what else?"
Johnny growled, "One of these days a bunch of these Tuareg are going to decide that a lynching bee is in order, and that's going to be the end of this little base at Bidon Cinq."
Mellor said, "If they're Tuareg nomads then they have no legal right to be within several hundred miles of Bidon Cinq. And if they've got goats, they shouldn't have. The Commission has bought up every goat in this part of the world."
Johnny growled, "Sure, bought them up and then left it to the honor of the Tuareg to destroy them. The honor of the Tuareg! Ha!"
The other said pompously, "Are you criticizing the upper echelons, McCord?"
Johnny McCord snapped, "You're damned right I am." He slammed off the telephone and turned on Derek Mason. "What are you grinning about?"
Derek drawled, "I say, Hiram, I got a sneaky suspicion you ain't never gonna graduate off'n this here farm if you don't learn how to cotton up to the city slickers better."
"Oh, shut up," Johnny growled. "Let's have another beer."
Before Derek could bring it to him, the telephone screen lit up again and Paul Peterson, of the Poste Weygand base, was there. He said, "Hi. You guys look like you're having a crisis."
"Hello, Paul," Johnny McCord said. "Crisis is right. Those jerks down south let a clan of Tuareg, complete with a few thousand goats, camels and sheep through. They've been grazing a week or more in my west four hundred."
"Good grief." Paul grimaced. "At least that's one thing we don't have to worry about. They never get this far up. How'd it happen?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out. I haven't seen the mess yet, but it's certain to wreck that whole four hundred. Have you ever seen just one goat at work on the bark of three-year transplants?"
Paul shuddered sympathetically. "Look, Johnny," he said. "The reason I called you. There's an air-cushion Land Rover coming through. She just left."
Derek Mason looked over Johnny's shoulder into the screen. "What d'ya mean, she?"
Paul grinned. "Just that, and, Buster, she's stacked. A Mademoiselle Hélène Desage of Paris Match."
Johnny said, "The French magazine? What's she doing in a road car? Why doesn't she have an aircraft? There hasn't been a road car through here this whole year."
Paul shrugged. "She claims she's getting it from the viewpoint of how things must've been twenty years ago. So, anyway, we've notified you. If she doesn't turn up in eight or ten hours, you better send somebody to look for her."
"Yeah," Johnny McCord said. "Well, so long, Paul."
The other's face faded from the screen and Johnny McCord turned to his colleague. "One more extraneous something to foul up our schedule."
Derek said mildly, "I say, Hiram, what're you complaining about? Didn't you hear tell what Paul just said? She's stacked. Be just like a traveling saleswoman visitin' the farm."
"Yeah," Johnny growled. "And I can see just how much work I'll be getting out of you as long as she's here."
Poste Maurice Cortier, better known in the Sahara as Bidon Cinq, is as remote a spot on earth in which man has ever lived. Some 750 kilometers to the south is Bourem on the Niger river. If you go west of Bourem another 363 kilometers, you reach Timbuktu, the nearest thing to a city in that part of the Sudan. If you travel north from Bidon Cinq 1,229 kilometers you reach Colomb-Béchar, the nearest thing to a city in southern Algeria. There are no railroads, no highways. The track through the desert is marked by oil drums filled with gravel so the wind won't blow them away. There is an oil drum every quarter of a mile or so. You go from one to the next, carrying your own fuel and water. If you get lost, the authorities come looking for you in aircraft. Sometimes they find you.
In the latter decades of the Twentieth Century, Bidon Cinq became an outpost of the Sahara Reforestation Commission which was working north from the Niger, and south from Algeria as well as east from the Atlantic. The water table in the vicinity of Bidon Cinq was considerably higher than had once been thought. Even artesian wells were possible in some localities. More practical still were springs and wells exploited by the new solar-powered pumps that in their tens of thousands were driving back the sands of the world's largest desert.
Johnny McCord and Derek Mason ate in the officer's mess, divorced from the forty or fifty Arabs and Songhai who composed their work force. It wasn't snobbery, simply a matter of being able to eat in leisure and discuss the day's activities free of the chatter of the larger mess hall.
Derek looked down into his plate. "Hiram," he drawled, "who ever invented this here cous cous?"
Johnny looked over at the tall, easy-going Canadian who was his second in command and scowled dourly. He was in no humor for their usual banter. "What's the matter with cous cous?" Johnny growled.
"I don't know," Derek said. "I'm a meat and potatoes man at heart."
Johnny shrugged. "Cous cous serves the same purpose as potatoes do. Or rice, or spaghetti, or bread, or any of the other bland basic foods. It's what you put on it that counts."
Derek stared gloomily into his dish. "Well, I wish they'd get something more interesting than ten-year-old mutton to put on this."
Johnny said, "Where in the devil is Pierre? It's nearly dark."
"Reuben?" Derek drawled. "Why Reuben went out to check the crops up in the northeast forty. Took the horse and buggy."
That didn't help Johnny's irritation. "He took an air-cushion jeep, instead of a copter? Why, for heaven's sake?"
"He wanted to check quite a few of the pumps. Said landing and taking off was more trouble than the extra speed helped. He'll be back shortly."
"He's back now," a voice from the door said.
Pierre Marimbert, brushing sand from his clothes, pushed into the room and made his way to the mess-hall refrigerator. He said