Not my personal best. Not by a long shot. I'd like to blame research, and certainly that's part of it, but it's also the realization that, even though I have the story pretty fully formed in my head, there's a huge amount of data I need to try to impart to the reader in just under 7,500 words. I'm also finally having to face the luminaries whose props and people I am borrowing. The high concept description I've given is "Korak vs. Kurtz," but it also incorporates H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, with cameos appearances by characters from Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle. A part of me is, despite seeing the whole tale in my head, pretty intimidated.
But it's progress. And damned if even only five hundred words of a story that's been brewing in my head for over a year isn't making me a little giddy.
I'm going to do something I almost never do, and provide the opening bits of the work in progress. While I don't expect comments, I hope sharing at least this little bit, and maybe one or two others within the next few days, to give prospective readers (all three of them) a taste of my latest piece of fiction.
For those who don't know, this is for the "Gorilla of the Gasbags" challenged posed by Mark Finn, Bill Crider, Rick Klaw, and the other usual suspects at Armadillocon last year.
The Savage Solution: A Romance
Derek Austin Johnson
Standing at the stern of the steamship, Jack Clayton glanced at his pocket watch and scanned the banks of the Congo. A curtain of mist drew across the still evergreens along the riverbank. A fine spray from the paddle wheel filmed the watch's crystal and slicked his face and seeped into his wrinkling linen suit.
It would be dark soon. The captain—an unwholesome trading station manager who only agreed to charter this ill-maintained vessel after persuasion by Jack and the company man—would turn off the engines and take refuge in a cramped cabin with the bottle of scotch and the black stuff supplied to him by the consulting detective from London.
Jack returned the pocket watch to his vest and leaned against the warm brass railing, his face lined with concentration as he listened to the living landscape beyond the clanging engine. Since the white mist occluded most of the bank and spilled into the still blue river itself, he had to rely on his acute hearing and sense of smell.
Footsteps clicked behind him. Meriem stood at his side, her gloved hand gently brushing his. She tucked a lock of black hair that had tumbled from her wide-brimmed hat behind her ear and examined him. “You hear it, too, don’t you, love?” Although they had only been to England a few times since his mother took up residence there, Meriem quickly adopted an accent that overpowered her lilting French. Jack nodded, and she squeezed his fingers, her deep brown face weighted with concern.
“Hear what, Killer?” The voice behind them was stuffy and pinched, as if its owner was trying to speak through his nose.
Jack faced the company man, so nondescript and colorless that Jack found it impossible to believe he had been a sea captain. “Silence,” Jack said finally. “I cannot hear the voice of a single bonobo or the call of any martins. Even the termites aren’t feeding on the living wood.”
The company man’s eyes wandered to the riverbank. He huffed. “I hear jungle. Leaves and maybe some barnyard grass rustling. Normal sounds in this part of the world. Maybe learning to be a mechanician has dulled your ears.” A snide grin spread across his face. “Or you’ve spent so much time playing gentleman that you’ve forgotten what it’s all supposed to sound like. Forgotten the savage within.”
Anger rushed through Jack, but Meriem touched his arm and he let it subside. “No, Charles,” he said finally, taking some pride as the company man bristled at the use of his Christian name. “If you’d lived here any time at all, actually grew to love it, you would be able to smell the scales of the elephantfish and tetras, recognize the waves in the river as they passed. Go inland, and you would recognize the brown-and-white carapace of each beetle. These aren’t things you forget, not when you’ve lived so closely with them. I know them intimately.”
The company man smirked and cast a brief eye at Meriem. “Yes, I’m sure you and your wife have a very intimate relationship with the jungle and its inhabitants.”
Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. A member of the Turkey City Writer's Workshop, his work has appeared in The Horror Zine, Tell-Tale Press, Skull Fragments: A Skelos Sampler, Rick Klaw's Rayguns Over Texas!, Nova Express, Moving Pictures, Her Majesty's Secret Servant, and Revolution SF. His film column "Watching the Future" appeared each month at Hugo Award-winning SF Signal.
He lives in Central Texas.