1. Destination: Desolation Island
Himmat's phone rang. "Professor, it's... for you!"
On the other end, it's the one-eyed pilot. He has a lead on a new species -- and wants to help us with the hunt! But we are still in India; it's barely 24 hours since our underground adventure with the Grrrhearts. How did he find us?
"I read your Monster Month blog, Professor. You were not hard to track down."
Of course. Usually my expeditions have put me incommunicado with the outside world... But now with the PowerBook, satellite phone and Blogger, that's all changed. It's hard to get used to.
We meet the Pilot at the airport in Calcutta. He's flying a large, new-looking helicopter this time. Our destination: Desolation Island.
Îles Kerguelen, the Kerguelen Archipelago -- aptly dubbed "Desolation Island" by James Cook in 1776 -- is one of the most isolated locations on Earth. The land, owned by France, is located in the southern Indian Ocean, roughly equidistant from Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. The climate is cold and windy -- but not ice-bound. The archipelago's main island, Grande Terre, is surrounded by more than 300 smaller islands... Yet, only about 100 humans live there.
Prime monster-hunting territory.
Our quarry: Giant Aphids. According to the Pilot, insects the size of cows have been sighted on some of the smaller islands, grazing on the indigenous Kerguelen cabbage.
Immediately I'm suspicious of Martian involvement. These creatures sound ominously similar to the Elysian insect megafauna that have invaded central Africa.
2. "Are we there yet?"
The journey is too long to be made in one flight. We're going to have to stop and refuel several times. The Pilot says not to worry -- that he has friends along the way who will help us out.
Our first stop is the Maldive Islands. Refueling doesn't take very long. I send Scarlet into the airport for food; she comes back with a whole armload of plastic-wrapped sandwiches.
"For later," she says.
The second stop is somewhere far out in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean, probably about parallel to Kenya. I see it first: A huge oil tanker, sitting dead in the water. The Pilot radios ahead. His conversation is succinct; it seems the ship is expecting us.
We set down on the deck, and the Pilot immediately starts refueling. "Stay close. And don't talk to anyone," he tells us.
We do as he says. The crew of the ship seems to ignore us. They're busy with forklifts, moving about huge canvas-wrapped crates. As we watch, a helicopter -- much like the one we're traveling in -- comes and takes away one of the parcels, lifting it off the deck by means of rope and hook, without even landing.
"We're ready to go," the pilot says. The sun is going down. Gold turns to lavender, and I can just begin to pick out the Southern Cross. It looks like this is going to be an all-nighter.
During the long journey I talk about our recent adventures: Scarlet playing Pied Piper with the Grrrhearts back in Meghalaya... My near-deadly underwater encounter with the leviathan off the coast of Sumatra, and the help rendered by the Porpische... Finding the Giant Mupp in North Korea, and our narrow escape through the Demilitarized Zone...
"I too, have seen... Monsters, Professor."
Ah-ha! I thought as much.
"This" -- our Pilot points to the black patch over his missing eye... "And this" -- he pulls his shirt open a ways, and I can see that a wicked scar runs down his torso -- from throat toward groin, as if he had once been torn in two. "It was a monster that nearly killed me five years ago."
His face looks green in the pale, hypnotic light from the control console. "Where were you? What kind of creature was it?" I ask eagerly.
His lips go tight. "I do not want to talk about it. I'm sorry." His brow knits, and he stares even more intently ahead into the night.
"Are we there yet?"
"Are we there yet?"
"Are we there yet?"
Scarlet has spent the past dozen hours in the cabin behind us. First there was the kazoo. Then there was the wooden paddle with a ball attached by elastic. (I took that away.) Then there was the yo-yo... Which was fine -- until "around the world" got out of control and the toy came flying into the cockpit.
Finally she settled down with a telephone-book-sized manga that she picked up when we were passing through Japan. Blessed peace and quiet!
Around one in the morning, she drifts off to sleep. I try to catch some shut-eye myself... But am woken by her snoring. (Yes, even over the roar of the rotor.)
Our third stop: Réunion Island, off the coast of Madagaskar. We set down on the tarmac in the dead of night, and...
"Are we there yet?"
Dawn comes and goes. Still we are heading south. Nothing but ocean has passed below us for hours. And then: another oil tanker stationed in the middle of nowhere.
Two of those familiar helicopters are lashed down to the deck, and more canvas-covered crates wait to be air-lifted away. But this time, no radio contact as we approach... Our helicopter gently sets down on the broad steel deck, and we pile out.
Not a human soul in sight. Where's the crew?
I ask the Pilot -- but he dodges the question, says "This is just a stopping point. Don't wander off -- we're making good time."
Scarlet won't hear of it. She needs to use the facilities, wants a change of clothes -- and just about works herself into a screaming fit.
The Pilot, red-faced and at the end of his wits, relents. "...But don't take long!"
Off she goes with her massive rucksack.
We finish fueling the helicopter... And wait. And wait. The Pilot is increasingly edgy. Just as he's about to go get her, she reappears -- a fresh pair of graffitied blue jeans, puffy winter coat, wet hair, and huge grin on her face.
Afternoon, flying under a bright but cloud-covered sky. More than a thousand miles of ocean behind us since Réunion. Just one more stop before Kerguelen.
"Are we there y--"
"Almost there," snaps the Pilot.
My voice is beginning to go hoarse. All night long the Pilot was picking my brain, encouraging me to tell more stories about the creatures I've discovered. The details of their peculiar survival strategies, how I was able to track them down... It's not often I have such an eager audience, so I was glad to oblige. But as I'm finally telling him about my first encounter as a young man -- with a Quillaupus of unusual size, back in the woods of Vermont -- I suddenly realize that he's managed to avoid telling me almost anything about his own history. I'd like to understand more about his motivation in joining the hunt...
But it can wait. There's the last oil tanker, sitting on the horizon.
"Private Scarlet, reporting for duty, Sir!" Scarlet salutes me. "Twenty laps around the deck? Yes, Sir! Thank you, Sir!"
Just as she's about to race off down the silent tanker's deck -- "STAY CLOSE!" the Pilot barks.
So she starts sprinting circles around the helicopter. She's wearing an old green felt and scarlet star communist cap now; dog-tags, rucksack, and white tank top -- despite the bracing wind. The Pilot is gritting his teeth, staring determinedly at the fueling hose, trying to will the gas into pumping even faster.
Again a deserted ship. Not even a spare helicopter or crates this time -- just a Mary Celeste dead in the water, waiting for no one.
Off in the distance -- perhaps it's my overactive imagination -- I think I can just see a glimmer of Kerguelen. Our legs are sore, and I'm looking forward to the next few days of hiking and short hops between islands. I have an idea about how to distill the odor of Kerguelen cabbage as a means to attract the Giant Aphids...
"HEY, LOOK AT ME! GET OVER THERE RIGHT NOW! OVER THERE!"
I turn around. The Pilot is pointing a gun at Scarlet.
"Let's all just calm down," I protest...
"You too, Professor!" I'm looking into the barrel of his pistol -- I raise my hands up where he can see them. Scarlet trots backward and joins me, hands up.
"Now just stay there! Stay where you are!" The Pilot is getting into the helicopter -- gun still trained on us. The rotor starts to turn.
I shout to the Pilot... "Why?"
From the cockpit he looks me in the eye. "You're a brave man, Professor! But you've made yourself enemies. Powerful enemies...!"
He picks something up from between the seats. "Thanks for all the stories!" He shakes my Bolex over his head victoriously and laughs.
Damn! Not the camera!
The helicopter lifts off.
It all happened so fast... I watch, stunned, as the one-eyed pilot rises -- 10, 30, 50 feet into the air.
My assistant is kneeling over her rucksack beside me, rummaging. She stands up, holding -- A GRENADE LAUNCHER.
Scarlet through a pout: "You are not a nice man."
With a deafening blast, the grenade rockets away... A flash, thunder, smoke!
The helicopter spins in the air--
And then regains its trajectory. A near miss. The Pilot races off, back toward Réunion.
Scarlet turns toward me with wounded eyes and a terrible frown...
"Always wanted one of these," she grins.
[to be continued]