Home > Congo(4)

Author: Michael Crichton

One of the technicians laughed. "We caught them still sleeping. Guess they do need you there." Ross was known for her insistence on formalities.

"Lock your remote," she said.

The technician punched in the remote override. The field camera, ten thousand miles away, came under their control in Houston.

"Pan scan," she said.

At the console, the technician used a joystick. They watched as the video images shifted to the left, and they saw more of the camp. The camp was destroyed: tents crushed and torn, supply tarp pulled away, equipment scattered in the mud. One tent burned brightly, sending up clouds of black smoke. They saw several dead bodies.

"Jesus," one technician said.

"Back scan," Ross said. "Spot resolve to six-six."

On the screens, the camera panned back across the camp. They looked at the jungle. They still saw no sign of life.

"Down pan. Reverse sweep."

Onscreen, the camera panned down to show the silver dish of the portable antenna, and the black box of the transmitter. Nearby was another body, one of the geologists, lying on his back.

"Jesus, that's Roger    

"Zoom and T-lock," Ross said. On the tape, her voice sounds cool, almost detached.

The camera zoomed in on the face. What they saw was grotesque, the head crushed and leaking blood from eyes and nose, mouth gaping toward the sky.

"What did that?"

At that moment, a shadow fell across the dead face onscreen. Ross jumped forward, grabbing the joystick and hitting the zoom control. The image widened swiftly; they could see the outline of the shadow now. It was a man. And he was moving.

"Somebody's there! Somebody's still alive!"

"He's limping. Looks wounded."

Ross stared at the shadow. It did not look to her like a limping man; something was wrong, she couldn't put her finger on what it was.

"He's going to walk in front of the lens," she said. It was almost too much to hope for. "What's that audio static?"

They were hearing an odd sound, like a hissing or a sighing.

"It's not static, it's in the transmission."

"Resolve it," Ross said. The technicians punched buttons, altering the audio frequencies, but the sound remained peculiar and indistinct. And then the shadow moved, and the man stepped in front of the lens.

"Diopter," Ross said, but it was too late. The face had already appeared, very near the lens. It was too close to focus without a diopter. They saw a blurred, dark shape, nothing more. Before they could click in the diopter, it was gone.

"A native?"

"This region of the Congo is uninhabited," Ross said.

"Something inhabits it."

"Pan scan," Ross said. "See if you can get him onscreen again."

The camera continued to pan. She could imagine it sitting on its tripod in the jungle, motor whirring as the lens head swung around. Then suddenly the image tilted and fell sideways.

"He knocked it over."


The video image crackled, shifting lines of static. It became very difficult to see.

"Resolve it! Resolve it!"

They had a final glimpse of a large face and a dark hand as the silver dish antenna was smashed. The image from the Congo shrank to a spot, and was gone.

2.Interference Signature

DURING JUNE OF 1979, EARTH RESOURCES TECHNOLOGY had field teams studying uranium deposits in Bolivia, copper deposits in Pakistan, agricultural field utilization in Kashmir, glacier advance in Iceland, timber resources in Malaysia, and diamond deposits in the Congo. This was not unusual for ERTS; they generally had between six and eight groups in the field at any time.

Since their teams were often in hazardous or politically unstable regions, they were vigilant in watching for the first signs of "interference signatures." (In remote-sensing terminology, a "signature" is the characteristic appearance of an object or geological feature in a photograph or video image.) Most interference signatures were political. In 1977, ERTS had airlifted a team out of Borneo during a local Communist uprising, and again from Nigeria in 1978 during a military coup. Occasionally the signatures were geological; they had pulled a team from Guatemala in 1976 after the earthquake there.

In the opinion of R. B. Travis, called out of bed in the late hours of June 13, 1979, the videotapes from the Congo were "the worst interference signature ever," but the problem remained mysterious. All they knew was that the camp had been destroyed in a mere six minutes - the time between the signal initiation from Houston and the reception in the Congo. The rapidity was frightening; Travis's first instruction to his team was to figure out "what the hell happened out there."

A heavyset man of forty-eight, Travis was accustomed to crises. By training he was an engineer with a background in satellite construction for RCA and later Rockwell; in his thirties he had shifted to management, becoming what aerospace engineers called a "rain dancer." Companies manufacturing satellites contracted eighteen to twenty-four months in advance for a launch rocket to put the satellite in orbit - and then hoped that the satellite, with its half-million working parts, would be ready on the assigned day. If it was not, the only alternative was to pray for bad weather delaying the launch, to dance for rain.

Travis had managed to keep a sense of humor after a decade of high-tech problems; his management philosophy was summarized by a large sign mounted behind his desk, which read "S.D.T.A.G.W." It stood for "Some Damn Thing Always Goes Wrong."

But Travis was not amused on the night of June 13. His entire expedition had been lost, all the ERTS party killed -  eight of his people, and however many local porters were with them. The worst disaster in ERTS history, worse even than Nigeria in '78. Travis felt fatigued, mentally drained, as he thought of all the phone calls ahead of him. Not the calls he would make, but those he would receive. Would so-and-so be back in time for a daughter's graduation, a son's Little League playoff? Those calls would be routed to Travis, and he would have to listen to the bright expectation in the voices, the hopefulness, and his own careful answers - he wasn't sure, he understood the problem, he would do his best, of course, of course. . . . The coming deception exhausted him in advance.

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