© Andrew Starling
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Chapter 1: The Bite
"The problem is," began Angie, "your story has holes. You say you're here to see bonobos, but you haven't taken any interest in other animals. I mean, chimpanzees are almost the same as bonobos, but no interest. We went through Kenya like a frightened gazelle. We didn't stop at any of the parks."
"We stopped at Lake Naivasha," corrected Beth.
"So, you've been to Kenya and seen flamingos. That's not much of a tick-list."
"We're specifically interested in bonobos," said Beth, firmly.
It was late in the afternoon, hot and very humid. The sun was still above the horizon but had fallen into a humidity haze, turning red and large and dim enough to glance at momentarily. They drank beer on the hotel veranda. Four bottles of Eagle Extra stood on the red and white plastic gingham tablecloth. Beth and Angie drank from glasses, Rick directly from the bottle. Sam had used a glass on the first night, and from then on copied Rick's example, drinking straight from the bottle. The theory, according to Rick, was the beer stayed slightly cooler this way, it didn't pick up heat from a warm glass. The veranda looked out on to a small swimming pool, its water peppered with leaves and twigs. To one side was a patch of waste ground where local youths moved a football around. Beyond this unremarkable foreground the view was pleasant enough, ten miles or so of flat Ugandan countryside, dotted with palms and trees and ending in the haze and no clear horizon.
"It's only bonobos," agreed Sam.
"Then tell me something about them."
"Slightly smaller than a chimpanzee, with a darker face and a centre-parting, which chimps don't have, or at least it's not so clear. Found only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Close relation of human beings, possibly closer than chimpanzees. Maybe twenty thousand left. Latin name, Pan Paniscus."
"You sound like Wikipedia," said Rick.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"And this is down to professional interest?" asked Angie.
"Yes," replied Beth.
Angie had been expecting a response from Sam, but adapted to Beth giving the answer. "Your work as a psychologist? So how come you're so interested in bonobos, but not chimpanzees?"
"Because bonobos live in harmony, they're far less aggressive than chimps."
Angie contemplated this answer for a few seconds. She sighed and shook her head.
"Why the twenty questions?" asked Beth. "We're paying you to take us to see bonobos, why are you so bothered about why we want to see them? These are all questions you should have asked when I first contacted you. You knew it was all about bonobos, and that meant going through Kivu. It's a bit late to start changing your mind."
Having pushed Beth into a strong response, Angie entirely gave up with her assertive approach. Her tone returned to its gentle normality.
"Because I'm nervous, I guess. We're about to cross the border into the Congo, Kivu district, one of the most dangerous places in the world. And we can't work out why we're going there, apart from the money. It's good money, I'll admit. But this story about going to see bonobos doesn't quite ring true. We've done dozens of these trips and most people want to see everything, from lizards to marabou storks. It's very rare to come across anybody so single-minded."
"It's really essential to see bonobos," answered Beth. "If we don't see bonobos the trip will be a disaster, a complete waste of time."
"No interest at all in chimpanzees?"
"We can look at chimpanzees on the way back, if you want. I thought you said we needed to get to the Congo as soon as possible, because of the rains?"
"That's true," answered Rick. "We need to be in there while it's still rainy season. It gets more dangerous when the rains stop."
"Well, there we have it," said Beth, with finality.
Dinner arrived, borne by a happy waiter. Nile perch, with sweet potato fries, and a salad that nobody touched because this was Africa and, according to Rick, who'd lived here for years, you couldn't trust a salad that cost less than ten dollars.
"This isn't Nile perch," said Rick, when the waiter had gone. "It's normal perch from a fish farm that maybe uses water from the Nile. Nile perch is an enormous fish, maybe four or five feet long."
The fish on their plates was whole and covered only half the plate.
"I think we're probably not supposed to know that," said Angie. "Tastes pretty good though." She raised her glass. "To bonobos."
The foursome clinked glasses and bottles. Half the red sun had now disappeared into the haze and the first adventurous mosquitoes were testing the shadows, including human legs beneath the table. Beth made a start on the evening routine of applying mosquito repellent. It was not a fast process. Her three companions were still youthful and slim, but she was not. Done quickly, the process would have been inelegant. Instead she opted for a more measured approach so not all the grace of movement was lost.
"Looks like I'm the only one who uses this."
"Angie and I have lived in Africa too long to coat ourselves in industrial solvent every day," said Rick.
"Di-ethyl toluamide. DEET."
"Don't you get bites?"
"Yes, but they don't come up. Anything less than forty I don't even notice."
"Isn't that dangerous? I mean, thinking about malaria?"
"Yes. And we don't take malaria pills either. You can't take them for years at a time. We live the same as the Africans: no repellent, no pills, and take some medicine if we actually get malaria."
Beth interrupted her routine. "I hadn't thought about that. They can't take malaria pills their whole life, so they take none. Makes sense."
"Back in Nairobi, I saw some well-off Kenyans putting on repellent," said Sam.
"Yes," said Rick, "but they probably wouldn't put it on every day, just when the mosquitoes are bad. How about you? I've never seen you put repellent on, and I've never seen you get bitten."
"That's because he's with me," said Beth. "Look, I've already got four bites on my ankle."
"Sweet blood, it's called."
Beth finished her routine and put the cap back on the bottle. "Isn't there some risk here? What are we going to do if you get malaria while we're in the Congo? There might be no doctors or medicine."
"We bring the medicine with us. If Angie or I start to get malaria, we take the medicine. We might have to rest-up for a day, but that should be about it."
Beth didn't look impressed but didn't add anything.
Rick slapped his shin and as usual scored a hit. He flicked the red splodge off his palm.
"And that's something else we have to mention," he started. "This is the last hotel. From now on we'll be camping. We've only got two tents. One for us, and one for the two of you."
"That's fine," answered Beth.
"But in the hotels you always take separate rooms."
"That's just decadence," said Beth. "Two rooms is luxury, and they're not expensive. We'll be good with one tent."
"Not that I'm saying you're an odd couple," started Rick.
"Rijkaard!" exclaimed Angie.
"What did you call him?" asked Beth.
"It's his full name," answered Angie. "It's Dutch."
"Rye-cart," pronounced Beth, very carefully. "I guessed the Dutch part. All those U's from the lungs rather than the throat." She mimicked Rick, "Luuuganda."
"Very good," said Rick. "Like I was saying, an odd couple."
"It's fine," said Beth. "We are an odd couple. At first you had me down as a cougar travelling with my toy-boy. But we rarely sleep in the same bed. So now you're confused." Beth made little effort to relieve the confusion. "Maybe that's the easiest way for you to think of it – he's my bodyguard and I sometimes sleep with him."
"And that's obviously not true either," said Angie. "But you think it might help us sleep better."
"If you like."
"That's why you pick up all the bills, and he doesn't seem to have any money."
"I'm certainly paying for the trip," confirmed Beth. "And you're right, he doesn't have money."
Sam didn't find any of this offensive. He nodded his agreement. He looked twenty years younger than Beth. Young enough to be her son, except there was no family resemblance. His skin was darker, his hair lighter, eyes blue rather than brown. His nose, chin, eyebrows, ears, all different to Beth's. No genes in common. And he never did pay for anything, didn't even bother to carry money. It wasn't surprising that he and Beth should be labelled an odd couple.
Rick and Angie were more of a conventional match, at least in age, both in their late twenties. Their contrast came in stature. Rick looked tall even when he was sitting down. Angie made her chair look oversize. They both had light hair. Angie's shoulder-length but always gathered at the back, never free. Rick's short enough that it should have looked neat, but never did. Even at this length it liked to go on minor adventures of its own.
The waiter paid a visit to check they were all eating and had no complaints. He used no words, merely presented himself to be addressed. Rick took the opportunity to order another beer.
"Anybody going to join me?" Nobody took up the invitation.
"That's your fourth," said Angie, in a mild way that was difficult for anybody outside the relationship to fully understand.
"Better make the most of them," answered Rick. "No beers for quite a few days now. Maybe a week."
Angie left to use the toilet.
"Was that a limit?" Sam asked Beth, ignoring Rick's presence at the table. "Is Rick only allowed four beers?"
Rick looked on, mildly surprised. He glanced down at Sam's feet, which were strangely positioned, tucked in beneath the plastic chair, not moving, not spread and relaxed.
"No," answered Beth. "Missing firmness. It was more of an observation."
"Then why did she say it?"
"Who knows? Maybe she's feeling horny and wants to make sure her partner can perform."
Rick looked at them both, slightly open-mouthed, but he didn't have anything to say. His fourth beer lasted the rest of the evening.
When Angie returned, she announced, "Last Wi-Fi for a while, as well."
Out came the mobile phones. For Rick and Angie, second-hand Samsungs, phones that had already lived a life. For Beth, an almost new iPhone, still shiny and immaculate.
Sam produced a phone of unknown brand and placed it on the table and ignored it. He drank his beer from the bottle and watched the crowd of local youths playing football on the waste-ground nearby. Some wore shoes. The ground was red soil without a blade of grass. He adjusted his glasses repeatedly, as if unsure of something he was seeing. "They don't have a ball," he announced. "It’s taken me a while to work it out, but there’s no ball."
Rick managed to pull his eyes away from his phone screen for a minute. "They definitely had a ball."
"That's surreal," said Angie.
"Well how about that," said Beth. "Here we are, locked into the virtual world of our little screens, and the locals are doing even better."
"They had a ball a few minutes ago," said Rick.
"Well, it's gone," said Angie. "Maybe it belonged to one of the players who dropped out. "
A game without a ball was only fun for a while. After a few minutes the charade ended and the youths went their separate ways.
"You've got to give them points for enthusiasm," said Angie.
"I'm not sure if it works out for them," said Sam. "I've never heard of a famous Ugandan player."
"Oh, there must be," said Rick. "You see them playing football everywhere. Somebody must have made it."
"I don't reckon so," said Sam. "You get some from the Congo, but not from here."
"Well we can look it up," said Rick. "We’re connected."
Angie and Beth finished their wired-world business and put their phones away.
After a while, Rick conceded, "You're right."
They drank in silence, not real silence, tropical night silence, a cacophony of bugs and weevils clamouring for sex under cover of darkness.
"What's it called?" asked Beth. "The hotel, I mean."
"Not sure," answered Rick. He looked back at the shabby white building with its neon signs in the windows, flickering as they tried to cope with the varying voltage of the mains. This was a passing-through hotel, not a destination. "Hotel Wooteri, I think."
"Doubtful," said Sam. "That means hotel in the Luganda language. It could be called the Hotel Hotel, but it's unlikely."
"You didn't tell us you spoke Luganda," said Rick, a little sharply.
"No, just the odd word I've come across."
In between tapping at tiny keyboards, talking and watching football, they'd managed to pick through the edible parts of their food, leaving plenty of fish bone debris and salad. The waiter hadn't come out for the empty plates so Angie stacked them on a spare plastic chair, leaving the table uncluttered.
"Do we need to know anything about this Kivu district, this place that's so dangerous?" asked Beth.
"The Eastern Congo, Kivu district," answered Rick. "Nobody is in charge there, apart from the man standing in front of you with a gun. Most of it is spillover from Rwanda, the Hutus versus the Tutsis, then you've got the Congo army, trying to reclaim its country. Or at least trying to reclaim it on behalf of the capital, Kinshasa, more than a thousand miles to the west. It's warlord territory. The Tutsis are split into factions. The Congolese army is split into factions run by officers who've defected from central control. The communities there have had to create their own militias to protect themselves, called Mai-Mai, also in factions. It's a real mess. Normally I wouldn't go near the place, but there was quite a lot of fighting recently, which is good because it means everybody is tired. Also it's rainy season and everybody likes to take a rest while it's difficult to move around. We've got a window of about three weeks."
Nobody stayed up late. By now Beth and Sam had shifted their active day from temperate timing to tropical timing, clipping off a couple of hours from the late evening to make sure they were up and about early in the morning, the best part of the day. If they were lucky, they might even get to feel chilly for half an hour around dawn.
They ate breakfast at the same table as the sun rose into a blue sky streaked with violet clouds and no humidity haze, yet. By 6:15 they'd stowed their gear in the back of the old Toyota Land Cruiser and were out on the road.
As they moved further west, Uganda changed. A transition Beth described as moving from pleasant to gorgeous. Grass and trees were replaced by banana plantations on gentle rippling hills. When the road climbed a hill a little higher than the rest, they could see waves of bananas stretching thirty miles, like a mild green tropical sea. The green of the banana leaves and dark red of the soil were perfect complementary colours.
It was Sunday and people were walking along the side of the road to church, all dressed up in their finery, the women in brightly coloured wraps, often with a matching headscarf. The children and the very few men in view were stuck with conformity, their best clothes, which for a child might be school uniform or close, and for a man a plain shirt with a collar plus long trousers, never shorts. Shorts were for children. It was the women who wore showstopper outfits, bright African prints sometimes cut as a dress other times wrapped around and pinned, with a separate shard of the same material for a headdress. The colourful prints could be symbolic, patterned, or pictorial. Fruits or birds or faces, using the body as a billboard for a politician or preacher.
"Where are the men?" asked Sam.
"The men are still in the shebeens," said Rick. "Getting drunk enough to hear about God. The women will have had their tipple earlier."
"What do they drink?"
"Beer is too expensive. They drink waragi. It's distilled from bananas."
"Do they drink lots of it?"
"This is the pot calling the kettle black, but I can tell you the Ugandans love their alcohol. Put it this way, today is Sunday, we need to be off the road by late afternoon, otherwise some drunk will crash into us."
Whether they'd been drinking or not, the worshippers were in a wonderful mood. They waved and smiled and their happiness was infectious.
Later, the hills turned into small mountains and there were more regular trees than bananas. Patches of commercial oil palms produced their own monotony. As they drove even further west the vegetation became wilder, less influenced by mankind, the oil palms and bananas disappeared. Angie was driving. This was a decent road, peppered with potholes, some the size of a bathroom, and occasionally breaking up into pure dirt – more than acceptable by African standards.
Suddenly a giant lizard scuttled across the road in front of them, its body raised off the ground and legs paddling furiously, as if it were running on tiptoe. Angie braked and pulled in where it had disappeared into the undergrowth.
"What was that?" exclaimed Beth. "It must have been six feet long."
"A monitor lizard," answered Angie. "They're pretty rare these days. A bit of a delicacy for the locals."
Beth jumped out of the car and dashed after it, showing a surprising turn of speed. She began rooting around in the bushes, but the beast had gone.
Rick mumbled curses in his guttural language. He reached under his seat for his machete, which he called a panga, took it out of its sheath and quickly caught up with her.
"You're not going to kill it, are you?" said Beth, eyeing the weapon.
"No, I'm going to kill the snake that you tread on because you're not looking where you're going."
"Oh." Beth instinctively reached up to feel the side of her neck where she'd squashed a Nairobi fly on her first day in Kenya, less than a week ago. She'd wiped off the debris and thought nothing of it, and now there was a long red angry streak on her neck where the insect's toxic blood had burned her skin, many hours later, like something from an Alien film. Now she knew to watch out for the little red and black flying beetles. It was fine to kill them, but essential to wash your skin straight afterwards.
"You're running around like it's somebody's garden and the most dangerous thing you're going to come across is a tangle of hydrangeas or a compost heap," continued Rick. "A monitor lizard has a really nasty bite, full of bacteria. What would you have done if you'd caught up with it?"
"Work the body," joked Beth, striking a boxer's pose.
Rick wasn't charmed. He looked down at Beth's sandals and feet.
"The first thing for you to learn about the bush is snakes. Everywhere we walk and everywhere we camp there will be snakes, sometimes a few snakes and you won't see them, sometimes a lot of snakes. Always wear boots and socks, never sandals. Most people get bitten on the feet or the shin. Next most frequent place is the hands. Never put your hands where they can't be seen. So, when you're collecting firewood and you find a log on the floor, you roll it over with your feet, you don't grab it with your hands until you can see nobody's home. And the most dangerous time is going for a pee in the middle of the night. You think it's polite to wander away from camp, but don't do it. Stay inside the area that we've walked on, and pee right there. Really. It's dangerous to go any further. Cobras are the worst. They're deaf. Deaf and aggressive."
"How do we shower in the bush?" asked Beth, moving the subject away from snakes.
"We wait until it rains, then we take our clothes off," answered Rick, evenly. "Don't worry. Where we're going, it rains a lot."
Angie had caught up with them. "Is he lecturing you?" she asked.
"Well, it's good material, not always delivered at the right pace," said Angie, bringing calmness to the conversation.
"I've never seen bonobo," said Rick, as they walked back to the car. "I'm curious. That's one of the reasons we've taken up this hare-brained scheme."
"Plural, bonobos," corrected Angie, emphasising the S. "Please don't say bonobo when you mean bonobos."
"This plural business is a mystery," said Beth. "Sometimes people say elephant, sometimes elephants. A herd of elephant, or a herd of elephants. A couple of lion, or a couple of lions."
"Well you should always use the S," said Angie. "It's elephants and lions and bonobos. The plural without the S is the snob plural. It comes from hunting. The same idiots who hunted in England and Scotland and who'd already dropped the S from pheasants and quails, they came over to Africa with their guns and started dropping the S off plurals here too. So they bagged themselves a couple of lion or massacred a herd of elephant. That's why I don't like to hear plural bonobo without the S. It sounds like we've got guns and we're out to kill them."
"Rhino, rhinos. Buffalo, buffaloes," said Beth, testing out how they sounded. "Elk, you never hear elks. But rabbits, you don't hear 'I bagged three rabbit.'"
"Rabbits aren't snob hunting food," explained Angie. "Rabbits are for the peasants."
"Shot a couple of peasant the other day," joked Rick.
The Ugandan border post, their exit from the country, arrived almost by accident. They drove through a pleasant hamlet, as welcoming as any of the other rural villages in Uganda, and there at the end of the hamlet was the border post, two wooden bungalows a hundred yards apart, one for immigration, one for customs, each with a wooden pole barrier, insubstantial, two polite requests to stop and be processed. Village activity ran right up to the immigration barrier, though the heat of the day had already arrived and the activity wasn't strenuous. Children played, women carried things on their heads from one place to another, tin baths of water or goods. Next to the customs office was a tree full of weaverbirds, scores of them.
They'd arrived around lunchtime, as Rick had planned. The Congolese side of the border was three miles down the road, out of sight. There was no road traffic, just the occasional local woman on foot who didn't stop and had no passport to show.
It was an entirely different affair to the Kenya-Uganda border, which they'd passed through two days ago. The border posts there were half a mile apart, and between the two the street was tightly packed with shops and eating places and money-changers and back-room brothels. A very busy no man's land. Here, at the Uganda-Congo border, all the commerce had gone, along with all the people, leaving something entirely rural and with no visible destination, more like the end of the world than the end of a country.
The Ugandan immigration officials worked from their desks, and indeed seemed rooted to them. Rick took the passports into their office and was responsible for moving them from one desk to another when the time arose. They were an affable bunch of officials, smiling and making pleasantries in reasonable English. Yet they had time on their hands, enough to read every visa stamp on every page of every passport. At no stage did they step outside to check the identities of Angie, Beth and Sam. It was as if the passports had a life of their own and they were being allowed out of the country rather than the people they belonged to. Their checks took less than an hour.
After immigration came customs, where they took an entirely different approach, concentrating on the car. It was an old Land Cruiser, bought second hand for almost nothing at auction in Tanzania. Previously it had belonged to the UN and was still in UN white paintwork. Somebody had roughly sprayed white paint over the black UN markings on the sides and the front and rear. After buying the car Rick had tidied up the fresh paint with T-Cut, making sure the original markings were still clear beneath, so from a distance the car looked like it had UN markings in light grey rather than black. He'd judged the level perfectly so it annoyed the hell out of UN officials who saw it, but didn't bother the police. The car was almost worthless, being more than twenty years old and with almost 200,000 miles on the clock. The UN generally got rid of its vehicles after a couple of years and 20,000 miles, but somehow this one had survived the culls and made it through to old age. Maybe it had been somebody's favourite. It was a testament to Japanese reliability. The driver's side electric window motor had broken. Rick had swapped them around so now one of the rear door windows wouldn't wind down. The left rear indicator light failed every few months, so he kept a stock. The shock absorbers were past their best and the car wallowed on rough ground. In second gear there was transmission whine. Otherwise it was quite serviceable, and because its value was so low they could afford the carnet de passage, the car's own passport that guaranteed it wouldn't be sold in a foreign country. The deposit for the carnet cost more than the car, though Rick knew a customs official in Dar es Salaam who'd helped keep the cost down, for a consideration.
Ugandan customs also had time on their hands and wanted the car entirely emptied. Out came the four backpacks, the Jerry cans of petrol, the box of spares, the toolbox, the coolbox larder of meats and perishables, the cardboard box of tins and packets. The roof rack had to be unloaded too; the two tents, two spare wheels, six jerry cans of water, the small stash of firewood.
Angie spent the entire period distracted by the tree full of weaverbirds directly on the border. There must have been forty or more neatly-woven nests hanging from the branches like they'd been scattered there by a generous municipal authority. The birds chatted incessantly and dived in and out of their front doors, sometimes holding blades of grass in their beaks to make it clear who was responsible for the construction.
The officials prodded a few items and picked up a couple more to check their weight, but weren't really interested. Rick threw everything back in the car haphazardly, knowing it would all be taken out again at the Congo border post.
When they got the all-clear to leave, Rick drove them away smartly. The dirt track between the two border posts was a mess, looking like a farm track in disrepair. No country felt responsible for this byway. But it hadn't rained recently so there was no mud and the old Toyota merely grunted and groaned on the rough patches.
"Now then," started Rick, "which side of the road am I supposed to drive on here? The middle, I guess."
Most of the time the track was only one vehicle wide, but when it split, he made a show of choosing the right hand option, as if warming up from driving on the left in Uganda to the right in the Congo.
When they were out of sight of the Ugandan post, he pulled up.
"Pee stop," he announced. "And maybe a bite to eat. The Congolese will probably take longer."
The ladies set off from the rear of the car and the men from the front. It was a routine they’d become familiar with on the trip from Nairobi. Rick and Sam stood about five yards apart on the left-hand side of the track, exactly as they had done a dozen times before, looking aimlessly into the bushy undergrowth in front of them. Only this time, after about ten seconds, Rick exclaimed, "Ah shit!"
Sam, who didn't really need a pee, finished prematurely and moved across, breaking the usual taboo to see what the problem was. There was definitely alarm in Rick's voice.
"Don't come any closer," hissed Rick. "It's a mamba. They're incredibly aggressive. I think I've pissed on him."
The snake was the same colour as the grass, a dark and slightly brown green. Its body was almost invisible. It was as if a bunch of grass had risen up three feet and been capped by a head. The mouth was wide open, lined black inside, fangs clearly visible. The snake's head was level with Rick's private parts, quite stationary. Without eyes, it could have been vegetation, the mouth a blossoming black flower.
"Stay where you are," hissed Rick again. "I don't want you getting bitten. This is my fault. I don't think he's going to let me back off."
Sam did not do as he was told. Instead he stepped forward to join Rick in the danger zone.
"Don't be an idiot," hissed Rick.
For whatever reason, perhaps feeling outnumbered, the giant snake struck, not aiming for Rick's crotch but astoundingly jumping up to bite him on the head, and moving so fast the lunge was barely visible, like the trick of a magician. Even faster, Sam moved his hand in front of Rick's face. So to Rick's astonishment, he was in the clear, it was Sam who'd taken the bite. Rick stepped back reactively and zipped his fly.
"Pull it off!" he barked. "They chew. They bite twice. You have to pull it off."
The snake was still attached to Sam's hand. Seeming entirely unfazed, Sam quickly did as he was told. The snake dropped lifelessly to the floor.
Rick seemed more shocked than Sam. He looked in astonishment at Sam's face, at Sam’s bitten hand, at the dead snake. He’d just witnessed something irrational. It took a second before he could respond to the elements he could make sense of.
"Mamba bites are almost always wet. We’ve got antivenom in the car. We'd better give you a shot straight away. You're going to feel very, very unwell for a while. if we're lucky."
Sam didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. They walked back to the car, with Rick doing the shepherding thing that people do when they wish to show concern, his hand hovering around Sam's elbow and occasionally making contact but accomplishing nothing more than signalling support.
Beth and Angie also returned, having heard the commotion.
"He's been bitten," said Rick. "Black mamba."
"It was green," said Sam.
"Black mambas are green. It's their mouths that are black."
"I took the bite," Sam told Beth.
Angie was confused. It wasn't obvious where Sam had been bitten. He wasn't tenderly holding some body-part.
"Right hand," said Rick.
Still confused, Angie took Sam’s hand and inspected it. "'I can see the bite marks, and the venom. You need a shot. We might have to turn back. We could get back to the hospital in Mbarara in about a day if we rushed. But a mamba bite...?"
Beth was as unfazed as Sam. "That shouldn't be necessary," she said.
"It was a black mamba," protested Rick. "This is probably the worst snake you could have been bitten by. And it was a big one." Then, directed at Angie, "He killed the snake when he pulled it off."
Rick, still working with the few parts of the situation he could understand, began sorting through the luggage at the rear of the Toyota to find the first-aid kit. But everything had been thrown in without order, nothing was in its usual place. It was a frustrating search.
"You don't need to do anything," said Beth.
Rick stood up straight, and spent a few seconds suspended in the moment before some kind of explanation came to him. "Have you got an artificial arm?"
"Yes," replied Sam.
For some reason, Rick stared at Sam's feet. "How much of you is real?"
"Not really anything," answered Beth.
Rather than being shocked, Rick seemed almost relieved, enthusiastic even. "I knew this!" he exclaimed. "I knew it from your tracks, your spoor, your footprint is too heavy, it's like from somebody who weighs 400 pounds. When you get in the car, the suspension settles so heavy... you always try to get in at the same time as somebody else, so it's not obvious. But sometimes you don't manage it. You sit awkwardly on plastic chairs, so they don't have to take your weight. It's like you're twice as heavy as you should be. I worked it out."
"Sam is very sensitive about his weight," said Beth.
"I should think so too," said Rick. "You need to lose a hell of a lot, something like 200 pounds. And you’re not even fat."
"Are you being delicate, or not?" asked Beth, sharply. "It's difficult to tell."
For a while there was silence. Angie and Rick looked Sam up and down, in a way that would have been rude if he had been human. But he was not.
They found no flaws. Except for his weight, which wasn't obvious as he stood there. Apart from snake venom dripping off his right index finger, he looked perfectly normal.
Beth and Sam waited for the new reality to sink in.
When, in Beth's expert opinion, they'd had enough time, she gave her speech. Or rather she failed to give her speech. It was a speech she'd been practising for weeks, and now the time had come to deliver it, she dropped almost all of it and gave the bullet-point version. "Sam is an android. He's not dangerous, as you'll have noticed. He just saved you from a very dangerous snake bite. We chose you as our guides because you're very open-minded people. Now you know who Sam is, it's time to make a decision. Are you happy to carry on, or do you want to turn back? We can leave you alone for a while if you need to talk it over. As long as you like."
Rick and Angie locked eyes for some time, and this was part of the human world that Sam couldn't understand. Whatever communication was happening here, it was undetectable.
Beth understood it, though not in a way that could be written down.
"That won't be necessary," said Rick.
"Wow, this is the best trip ever!" said Angie, gleefully clapping her hands.