B.A.T. M.Y.S.T.E.R.Y – Better Armed Thinking Must Yet Solve This Enigma Rooted Yonder
Disclaimer: All characters and settings are entirely original, with any similarities to any person or characters from other works coincidental.
– Part 1 –
Why are the bats radioactive? Any prospective biologist at the Free University of Balakia eventually ended up asking themselves that in their tropical biodiversity class. The bats of the Samuru rainforest deep within the tropical island of Jute were, according to all evidence available, radioactive.
Two of them had under unusual circumstances ended up in Balakia, following an odyssey that had seen them be caught by a local and brought to a town where a colonial official passing by was struck by their grace and elegance. After a while, he fell ill, and suspected the bats. When local veterinarians could not figure anything out, he had them sent to the imperial capital, where a series of tests revealed them as radioactive.
But how was that possible? What made them be like that in the first place? No one had ever managed to figure it out. The secluded nature of their habitat that always had made it very inaccessible, making any expedition a difficult undertaking, and recent political tensions in the region had certainly not helped.
Every puzzle however once meets its match, and there were two students in the class of 1931 determined to be that for what had become known as the Bat Mystery, Better Armed Thinking Must Yet Solve This Enigma Rooted Yonder
– Part 2 –
Şakan Zadavanlah and Başanon Tameğ. They had just earned a first degree in biology, specializing in biodiversity, having encyclopedic knowledge of all species in their university's botanical and zoological gardens. Many a poor friend was persuaded to join in on their experiments and small "expeditions" into nearby wild caves, forests or mountains. But even they couldn't get anyone to spend ten days as a blind passenger on a cargo ship to the island of Jute, their last recourse after all official academic projects in the region were on hold for the time being and both the colonial agency as well as every shipping company refused to hire them.
After three days they were discovered and had to spend a week scrubbing decks and carrying coal. Doing it in the name of science made this bearable, of course. Giving up was not an option. They took solace in the fact they had managed to convince the captain, an elderly woman with silvery hair and blue uniform, not to throw them off in the middle of the sea.
Then, one late evening, they finally reached the Jutean port town of Numudu, where the Balak Empire had founded a trading colony. The two adventurers were unceremoniously shoved on shore alongside their equipment, described as "garbage" by the first officer. Trying to ignore this insult to science, both of the adventurers tried to look forward. But it was dark already, and the harbor was weirdly silent. All the busywork would not resume until the next morning. A clock near the pier, illuminated by a gas lantern, showed that they were approaching the 95th dema already, so only the twentieth part of the day was still remaining. Shouts of stilt birds that pierced the warm tropical air were the only indication they had some company, but it wasn't the kind you could ask what place would take you in for the night at this time.
– Part 3 –
No one said a word, just two students, one wearing a shirt, scarf and shorts, the other in a knee-long puffy dress and a baseball hat, walking down a pier below a starry sky in their coal-stained clothes, until Başanon jokingly pretended to push Şakan towards the harbor basin, exclaiming:
"Careful, don't fall into the water! There might be sharks in there!" with a big grin on his face.
Şakan released herself from his grip, adjusted her sunglasses she liked to wear any time she was outside, and just flatly said:
– "You know there are no sharks here. Don't act stupid. We were in the same class.". She pulled out a flashlight and shined it upon a phrasebook. "We might need to use this here quite a bit. Not everyone here has bothered to learn Balak."
"Hey, at least your clothes would have gotten clean. And I would have joined you for a refreshing bath! We haven't had one in so long."
After five more minutes of walking, they spotted a light shining onto the street through an open door. A sign had scribbles on it, but Şakan was able to decipher it.
"Ta - ho - i - n" She flipped through the pages. "Aha. That's a ranasgey."
Başanon gave her a quizzical look. She responded with a confused look.
"You know, a coffeehouse? A pub?" She just got a blank stare in return.
"Just a place where people go to drink together!" she said exasperated. "They drown their spirits in... well, spirits, until nothing and no one appears straight anymore."
– "Ah, so it's like falling into the harbor basin, except on a spiritual level!" he finally said, eyes lighting up.
His travel companion gave an annoyed sigh. "Yes... I guess... did you seriously never go to, never mind. Let's just go in." Sometimes Şakan forgot how little Başanon cared for socializing that isn't tied to his work somehow.
– Part 4 –
"Hopefully someone here knows more about the Samuru rainforest, too, and how to get there. It's going to be difficult otherwise." she said as she pushed open the door, not realizing that she was speaking loud enough that everyone still awake could hear them.
– "Uh, Şakan..." Başanon whispered after he had stepped through the door. "Why is everyone staring at us?"
"I. don't. know." she responded, gritting her teeth, hand in front of her face, leaving smudges of coal on it. "It's like we aren't even welcome in our own colony here. People were supposed to be hospitable hre, I thought."
The patrons were now eyeing them suspiciously, brows furrowed.
– "Maybe we should leave?" Başanon gestured towards the door. He just took a step when the bartender, a middle-aged local with a chinstrap beard, interrupted them in broken Balak.
"No, no! Come, come! Good food, sink drinks!"
– "Sink drinks? What does that mean?" Başanon asked his companion quietly.
"I think he means 'drown a drink'. You know." she answered and then cleared her throat, facing the bartender. "Thanks for the courteous offer, gentleman. It is much appreciated. Would you maybe have a room as well?"
– "I am sorry, can you say again?"
"A room. For sleeping?" She mimicked resting her head on her folded hands.
– "Ah, sorry, no. But you can sit. Sit the night! It is open."
Şakan let her shoulders drop. But she quickly righted herself and said, more to herself. "Well, then. Science requires sacrifices. If we can't sleep, we won't sleep. Simple as that."
She turned towards the other member of her expedition, which she now realized would have really needed more preparation. "Time to pull another all-nighter, Başa!"
– "Really?" he answered. "Well, you can count on me. What will we work on?"
"We will play a game. It's called 'Night at bar table'. The only rule is: You have to stay awake until the morning."
Başanon laughed. "Well, I know what I'll have to do then."
– Part 5 –
They both took a seat at a table near the door, put down their bags, releasing small puffs of coal into the air, and finally took a good look around. It was a simple wooden building, maybe 50 years old, with various photos and other souvenirs of Balakia hanging on the wall. Photos of emperors, famous ships, small statues of legendary historical leaders riding their horse into battle, and so much more. Between the walls there were tables, about 6 in total, not counting theirs. They were all occupied. People, men, women, and some where Şakan wasn't so sure, mostly in t-shirts and shorts or skirts, were reading newspapers, chatting, or playing a board game both travelers recognized.
"Hey, they are playing Kaseh here!" Başanon exclaimed.
– "Yeah, but they are clearly doing it all wrong. Look closer, there's no kingstone! How can they even play like this, butchering such a great game?"
"Eh, as long as they are having fun, it doesn't really matter." he shrugged.
– "But the rules! There are rules for a reason..." She turned to look to the bar, which was remarkably empty. No seats, no bottles on display, nothing. Behind it was a counter with more items, jugs of water, a lot of decorative mugs, empty coconut shells, and a bunch of unripe, green coconuts in a basket. A door was leading to another room in the back, through which the barkeeper was just re-emerging and approaching their table.
"Ah. I would like the strongest drinks you have. And the strongest ranas, thanks" she said to him. Nothing sounded better than a cup of ranas, Balak coffee, right now.
– "Drinks come!" the barkeeper replied.
He goes to the bar, picks up two green coconuts, cuts off the top and adds straws.
– "Here you are, drink of strength! Coconut water."
Şakan just stares at him and then the coconuts for a moment before catching herself and saying. "Ah. Thanks..."
– "You're welcome! And sorry for no laamas today. If you want laamas, strong music, please come tomorrow!"
"Yes, thanks" she said, clenching her teeth before turning to Başanon. "We'll be needing the phrasebook a lot, won't we.."
– Part 6 –
– "Or you could ask if someone speaks Balak." he answered, as he was trying out the strange beverage in front of him.
"Good idea." She loudly called out towards the other tables: "Who here speaks Balak?"
But she was met with a wall of silence, no one even turning towards her. She nervously leafed through the phrasebook again and then tried to carefully enunciate "Ta - hi - vi - o ... Va - lak, ... haa - sin?"
Everyone just sighed or shook their head, saying "Tal", some even giving her weird or even disgusted looks. But one of them was poking their neighbor, saying something unintelligible. A man with short black hair, tan as everyone around him and wearing just a dark green knee-long skirt, clearly made from rough jute fiber which the island is known for slowly got up and approached the scientists. His eyes were looking everywhere but at them, and he was shifting from one foot to the other, hands folded behind his back.
– "Saimol amo ta ji..." he muttered to himself, but clear enough for Şakan to hear it, who tried searching up the words quickly.
"Want not ... do ... this?". She looked up immediately and addressed him directly. "Sir! If you help us you will have done a great service to the scientific pursuit of truth and supported the march of progress that will propel us all to a bright future!" She grabbed his hand, not realizing she was smearing coal on it in the process.
The man took his hand away and looked up, eyebrows furrowing for a moment at the sight in front of him. A grin then formed on his mouth as he asked:
– "Really? You are some big scientists then?"
"Yes, of course. We are among the best biologists of the Empire!" she beamed.
- "Science is full of surprises." The grin was steadily widening.
"Exactly!" She was happy to have found someone who seemed to understand, although the grin was beginning to unnerve her. "And it helps us in so many ways. Every day, we make more discoveries, acquire more knowledge, and come closer to greatness..." She trailed off, looking into the distance. When her ears picked up chuckling, she blinked, looked around and wondered if she had misheard. But she hadn't, and the chuckling of the man she was talking to quickly became snickering.
"What's so funny? I demand an explanation!" she said, struggling to be heard.
The man's snickering finally erupted into boisterous laughter, with him holding his sides.
"This is serious! Science is one of the most noble pursuits of the empire!"
He was completely in stitches now, and turned to the other guests, saying something she couldn't make out, but that let the laughter spread through the entire room. He wiped a tear from his eyes before responding to her.
"The empire wants to lead us to greatness via its discoveries? Seems to me like it should discover the existence of soap first. Or are these dirty clothes and you smelling like you haven't bathed in more than a week signs of greatness to you over there?"
Şakan desperately wanted to give a retort to that and defend her and her nation's honor, but instead found herself speechless. Regardless of the circumstances that led to this, they really weren't being the best ambassadors of science and Balakia right now.
The man was still standing in front of the table at which she and her companion were sitting, now eyeing both of them with a mixture of derision and concern.
He continued. "Sink your drinks and then I will show you a place to sleep, so the air here can be clean again and the coal. Then tomorrow I will bring you somewhere that will make you understand what your progress brought to us."
– Part 7 –
When they both got up and began leaving the room, everyone else in it, including the bartender, breathed a sigh of relief. Another cut to Şakan's honor, but much to her surprise, Başanon didn't seem crestfallen at all. He still held his head high and mighty and was even laughing. He must have a downright supernatural sense of self-confidence, she thought. And while she took slow, heavy steps, and would have preferred to be in a jungle right now – better to be under the eyes of wild animals than the prying looks of other people – he was happily strutting along, arm hanging around the man's neck that had just humiliated her. Clearly, he had a way with people. But just what was his secret?
They were being led to another simple wooden house near the harbor, with a single streetside window and a small door and porch.
"We are grateful you were so hospitable to let us stay at your humble abode, even with our... unfortunate first impressions." she tried to smooth the waters as she stepped up to the entrance.
– "Oh no, no, this isn't where I live. It's my shed. Don't worry, it's perfectly equipped for nighttime stays, and it's also close to our ride tomorrow." the man replied. "By the way, you can call me Huuva." he said as he opened the door.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Huuva. I'm Şakan and this is Başanon." She lost her confidence she had regained for a moment. "You... you two seem to already get along well, which... is great! I'm so happy to see that, friends of my friends are also my friends!"
– "Yeah, that's fine. Please just get a bath. There's a tub over there, it even has warm water! I'll see you tomorrow here." he said as he turned around and left. The door remained slightly ajar, as it had no lock.
Şakan and Başanon took a look around. Şakan in particular seemed taken in by where they were.
"A bed! A real bed! Two even. I can't believe it. No more sleeping in the coals! I could screaaaam." she screamed. "Imagine, Başanon, we almost would have needed to put up with another all-nighter, in uncomfortable bar chairs! I have dreamed of this..."
Her companion just grinned and looked two beds squeezed between a wall and a huge drawer cabinet. "It wouldn't have been so bad. I know by now you can fall asleep anywhere!"
There was not else aside from the beds and the cabinet in the room. A table with two chairs at the window, and a bathtub with curtains next to the door apparently leading to another room. A hatrack was standing near it.
"Since you are now under the spell of the bed, I will go and use the bathtub. Look, there is even a towel and two sets of clean clothes here." he said, pointing to the edge of the tub.
– "Wait, no!" Şakan immediately got up and tried to reach the tub first, but it was no use.
"Too slow!" Başanon exclaimed.
The bathing was a rebirth to both of them, after which they immediately headed to bed. They still weren't even sure where the bats that brought them here had come from exactly, so the investigation would have to begin tomorrow.
In the morning, they were awoken by an enormously loud sound. It was as if they were near the engine room on a ship again.
"Good morning to you, Balaks!" Huuva greeted them, standing tall in front of their beds. "Put on some fresh clothes, we'll be leaving right away. Breakfast will come later."
After they hastily did as told they were led to the door that led to the other room. Huuva opened it and they realized they were entering a huge space, a hangar. A hangar for a seaplane, so half of the floor was in fact water. And it was waiting for them there. They couldn't help but stare.
The seaplane was an impressive one. A red biplane with three seats and a huge propeller at the front.
"You look so astonished. Did you not expect us to have anything like that?" Huuva asked, chuckling. "This will help me show you what's really going on here."
– Part 8 –
Şakan quickly closed her mouth and nervously tried to look somewhere else, flashing a smile. But Başanon seemed to ignore it, and instead approached the plane to study it further, eyes wide open. He had never seen anything like that before.
The machine was seemingly spotless, the colors brilliant. Yet, there were obvious signs it had been on many flights before, with spots having gotten a second or even third coat of paint, some parts apparently having been replaced or having undergone hardly visible repairs, indicated by their metal being of a vaguely different shine, the paintjob having ever so small interruptions or mismatches with their surroundings.
Two floats were mounted under the main body of the plane instead of wheels, slightly swaying in the water. To him, someone who had gotten interested in flying at a young age and so had dedicated himself to the study of all flying beings, an almost hypnotizing sight.
Huuva got a big grin on his face again upon seeing that. "She sure is a thing of beauty, isn't she?" he exclaimed. "Always keeping her in top shape, so she looks almost like new, even after all those years in service."
Before Başanon could reply, Şakan interrupted. "I don't mean to intrude on your ... conversation, but I have been wondering if you could give us an indication of what it is you do, for a living?"
– "Of course" he replied. "I'm a scout. I work from above in the skies to check if everything on the ground is okay, and...", he gritted his teeth and almost snarled, "to see if there are any new oppor-tu-ni-ties available." It didn't take a psychologist to notice there was more to it he didn't want to reveal, but she let it be for now, straightening herself and quickly looking away from his grin, now barely concealing contempt and hostility directed at no one in particular.
A second later, he had regained his usual composure, his friendly condescension. "Anyway, if you want to come, you need proper clothes. It gets cold, not to mention windy up in the sky and there's no room on the plane for a fireplace. Over there in the small clothes are aviator overall, helmets, and if you need them, scarves. You can change near the beds you slept in, I will change here."
When Başanon and Şakan returned in their red leather overalls back to the hangar, it was like they found another person entirely in the hangar. Standing in front of the plane, the bright light shining from behind, coming in from the now opened gates to the harbor, gave him a formidable, even slightly eerie appearance. The engine had been already started, and the running propeller made his scarf flutter sublimely.
"Okay, we're ready to go then!" Huuva exclaimed, raising a hand to a wave. He climbed into the pilot seat, and Başanon took the seat behind him, eager to see how this machine is used. Şakan sat in the last seat, furthest from the loud engine and with the best view. She hoped to catch a better glimpse of what is near them, and how large the town was. After last night's embarrassing moments she was trying to hide her excitement, but on the inside she was burning with curiosity.
Maybe she could even make Başanon ask him about the rainforest, and local bats. She couldn't wait to finally use her simple and reliable Geiger counter tube that she had been carrying around in her pocket. Her notepad with everything known about the bats had nothing on their origin, and not wanting to survey the entire island, she needed to know about where they lived.
Huuva went through a checklist, then put on his aviator goggles and the previously idling engine roared up as it pushed the plane through the gates of the hangar, and after a few seconds in the bay of Numudu they had lifted off, leaving the ships, streets and houses of the small port town below them.
They could see the ship that had involuntarily taken them to the town, apparently preparing to leave, with its chimneys blowing dark smoke into the air. Workers could be seen loading cargo onto it, and the same was happening to other ships next to it. It appeared to be a busy day at the harbor, very unlike to what they had experienced last night. Maybe it was a good thing they had arrived at that time, they would have never met Huuva otherwise, and who knows how many people they would have needed to ask to get any useful information. But Şakan didn't want to dwell on this thought too much. She didn't want any distractions.
– Part 9 –
The harbor was soon left behind as the plane flew higher, and further inland. People on the ground started resembling ants, and the houses, bicycles and carts seemed like toys. Şakan was mesmerized by the sight, having an entire town visible below her was unlike anything she had ever experienced. A thought struck her, if she could observe people like that as easily, couldn't anyone with a plane, too? The thought put her at unease, and she quickly tried to let go of it as well. She didn't want any new anxieties either.
Looking towards the sea, the rising sun glittered on the water and basked the town, the many trees at its shores, and the fields and meadows bordering it in a warm glow. It was maybe the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
For just a moment, she tried to see what her companion was doing. To her surprise and slight dismay he wasn't even paying attention the world below them at all. His eyes were fixated on the driver right in front of him and the cockpit in which they both were sitting, with all its instruments and switches. It was hard to tell what had caught his interest more, he always had had his special inclinations, Şakan thought smiling.
"We're now reaching the outskirts of the town. You can already see the forests in the distance!" the pilot shouted over the loud engine. The forests – she had dreamed for so long of finally seeing jungles with her own eyes. And now she was going to see them from above, to boot! What an incredible experience.
"You know, almost all of the fields here below, they were once rainforests, too. Not long ago, in fact. Then your "progress" arrived." His tone was surprisingly neutral, with only a slight hint of mockery in it. But Şakan didn't understand it. With how towns are growing so much in these modern times, surely people needed fields and meadows to grow food for all the people? She would have to ask him about it later, alongside everything else.
"Once we reach the forests, there's a lot more to show you."
– Part 10 –
She wondered what that could be. He didn't seem to be the kind of person to just show her trees, rustling in the wind, wet from the last rain shower. Looking down, she noticed what seemed to be railways. The Empire must have laid those. They made travel so much more convenient, she was sure the locals were grateful for them, too.
"This railway below us is actually going towards Samuru. I heard you mention it last night in the tahoin, you wanted to go there, right?"
Her eyes went wide at hearing that, and she could feel her heartbeat rising. She would have wanted to give Başanon a hug out of sheer joy if it hadn't meant falling out of the plane. Then the thought caught onto her mind. Wait, falling out the plane? We have parachutes, right...
The forests were still some minutes away, gradually getting larger, that she had time to fantasize finding the bats and then arriving back home as heroes of science. When they had crossed several jute and coconut palm plantations, they were approaching a huge lake, flanked by rainforest, she had a large grin on her face. This was now finally the border to the jungle that she had longed to see for so long.
"Look here, on the left there are primeval forests as they should be. But over here, on the right, the railway and smaller roads already cut into them and also disturb the lake. And look how far they extend!" Huuva shouted. The signs of the industrial age seemed to stretch on until the horizon as well as left and right, and there still seemed to be a lot more construction going on. Various buildings were getting erected, which caused a lot of noise and pollution. Even with the loud engine of the plane, it was audible.
Şakan bit her lip. Cutting down some forests to grow food might be justifiable as a compromise between human and other animals, but here it seemed go beyond that. What were they doing here? They risked destroying a lot of valuable habitats and upsetting ecosystems. She would try to raise the issue back home at the university. It threatened so much scientific research and so was a clear obstacle in improving the understanding of the natural world!
But for now she was glad to be able to get so close to the rainforests herself. Sadly the human impact and their height and speed made it very difficult to make much out in terms of species and tree characteristics, but even the bigger picture was so fascinating. Unlike forests at home, the wide and dense canopies of the trees here seemed to form a huge green carpet that let very little light through to the ground. The experience and view from the bottom must be incredible!
Then she realized they were actually losing height. She looked forward, but everything seemed to be okay with the machine.
"Here is where I have to set down. We need to refuel and work starts soon. If you prefer I can bring you back to town after that, otherwise I can show you my workplace." Huuva exclaimed.
– Part 11 –
The plane watered successfully and came to a stop near a pier where he got out of the plane and fastened it to a post with a rope. Şakan got out next and looked around. Her eyes became fixated on the railway that crossed much of the lake and ended on an island that had a strongly fortified building on top of it. She faintly remembered something mentioned off-handedly in one of her classes once that was supposed to have taken place here.
"Isn't it true that you had some political tension here?" she asked, trying to be cautious with her wording.
– "The Zaratan incident, yeah." Huuva replied bitterly, as he was doing after-flight checks on his plane, with Başanon looking over his shoulder with great interest. "That's what started it all, in 1893. Some poor homeless fool, banished from his community, stole food from the supply center and was sentenced to death for trespassing on military grounds. This caused... difficulties with the people from his home village who saw it as Balaks usurping control over their land and occupied the island." He paused and sucked air through his teeth.
"While the situation was eventually solved diplomatically after the Balak emperor himself intervened and those responsible for the wrongful killing were punished, relations have been strained since. And now, with the most recent expansion of plantations, wood cutting and construction work here, they are at the highest again they have been in decades."
Having finished his checks, he looked at Şakan's worried eyes, mouth agape, and realized he didn't need to wait for an answer.
"Some say there's also something going on, but no one can seem to agree on what. Just rumors."
Başanon suddenly looked up from all the instruments and switches in the cockpit, almost hitting his head at the wings in the process, and asked: "Wait, like what?"
"Nothing substantial, only thing people seem to agree on that it's making animals behave weirdly and the forest and people in it sick." Huuva replied.
Şakan's eyes went large for a barely noticeable moment. She had to know more.
"Sorry for interrupting, can I ask what exactly it is you do here then, then? What does a scout do here?"
Huuva lost his characteristic smirk entirely and dejectedly looked into the distance, saying nothing for a moment, leaving only the sounds of nature and construction.
– "Fine." he finally began. "I survey the environment to find new promising spots for the workers on the ground, so they know where best to construct railways and buildings. I took it up because I thought I could limit the damage to the forest if I could control the knowledge. But eventually I had to give in to the pressure when they realized I was holding back. It might have actually better if someone more clueless were doing this job instead, it might have limited the expansion."
A deep frown was now on his faces, and his eyes looked almost pleading towards the trees still standing.