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.

This is page 3. Page 2 can be found here and page 4 can be found here.


– Part 21 –

"When they finally met up with Sam again at the shelter, who had lit a torch to guide them back, he just said: "Your Balaks and your weird customs. You prefer bathing before sleeping, I take it? And splashing around like a dog on a hot day?"

""Oh no, we ... we ..." Şakan struggled to find the proper words that preserved a tiny bit of their dignity, or to maintain her proper posture. "We ... are not used to the darkness here. Yet. We just need some time to adjust. And get used to all the sounds."

"– "I thought you enjoyed them? You seemed so taken in by them."

""Yes, that is true, however I... would prefer to hear the rather threatening ones from a distance" she said, the pitch of her voice unintentionally rising. She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. But she remained on the edge. "Especially unfamiliar ones. We had never been taught about piercing hissing shrieks at university."

"– "Maybe it was a delenijauva? A mythical creature that is half cat, half monkey. It's supposed to be mostly harmless as long as you leave it home, I think." Sam replied,

""Mythical?" Başanon asked as he was readying a sleeping mat.

"– "We don't have your seal of scientific approval, but many people claim to have seen it. Legend says it was brought in by Balaks long ago on a ship. But usually it is seen further north, near where our most precious bats that you're after live."

"Şakan's eyes went wide for a moment. She had given up on seeming gracious and was now sitting, huddling rather, on another mat, leaning on to her expedition partner. It allowed her to finally speak more at ease.

""Oh, my device measuring radioactivity went wild while it was nearby... They must have had the same thing happen to them. I can feel us getting closer to the explanation already!" she said, her voice changing to a much more cheerful one now that she found out the encounter had been of scientific importance.

"It all had to wait until tomorrow, however. And with the Balaks' clothes still soaking wet, all three of them had to huddle together for warmth, even if it meant sleeping in rather embarrassing and awkward positions. Or would have for Şakan, who couldn't sleep due to a mixture of excitement and lingering terror. She decided to be the guard for the night, even though no one had asked her to be, and catch up on sleep at some other point. It would be fine, surely.

"With no lights around her, even the starlight blocked out by the shelter roof and the moon behind some clouds, she felt even eerier. At this moment, the universe just felt terrifyingly large, and she was brought to theological considerations. Why was Thagha such a distant god? She wished there was a sign that she was on the right path, but maybe humans were meant to feel lost and insignificant in the face of it all.

– Part 22 –

"So distracted by her thoughts was she that eventually she didn't even pay attention to the sounds around her anymore. This helped calm down her nerves, but was at odds with her intention of being a night guard. Next time she would ask Başanon instead.

"Next time she would also try to get herself to sleep earlier, she thought as she was being woken up much too soon the next morning. She had finally succumbed to sleep at some point, but much too late, and could barely register what was going on.

"Apparently everyone else was already clear to move on, and had her sleep in a bit. This expedition was certainly giving her a fair share of embarrassments. She wondered if she could ever get over all of them and finally start leaving the impression she wanted people to have. It clearly wasn't now, as she was feeling rather wobbly on her feet, so she was glad the boat was only a few steps away. Once on it, she felt herself drifting back into a semi-trance state almost immediately, tired enough to not even care about the snickering from the two men sitting in front of her.

"Eventually, she fell asleep to the familiar gentle puttering of the boat engine and the sounds of the waves it was causing. When she awoke, she noticed the surroundings had changed. The river was smaller, the water clearer and the trees seemed to be growing even closer to the shores, providing a lush green roof above the stream. She could see green parrots, purple pigeons, blue cuckoos and other brightly-colored birds in the air and clearly hear their cries. And even on land animals were apparently less shy now, although she couldn't clearly make them out from her position. It felt like she was waking up in paradise.

"She tried to raise her head and get up, but felt she was still dizzy and hurting from her uncomfortable position in a wooden boat with no cushions or pillows. If her surroundings were any cozier she would have preferred to just go back to sleep, but it was no use. She pushed through the pain and sat up. It's not like she could expect a nice, warm bed here. Not in a place so far from civilization.

"Civilization... The word made her body tense up, and another look at the rainforest and all its free and wild life almost brought her to tears. This place needed protection, and here instead were her compatriots occupying, exploiting and destroying the place. What an unbearable shame, her own beloved land destroying this untouched wilderness, that maybe no humans have reached before her and her team, and –

– Part 23 –

"Her melodramatic inner monologue was interrupted by the sound of another engine. She looked around and saw a small vessel not unlike the one she was traveling in, holding a single man, clearly a local, and in front of him a huge heap of ... red rubber hot-water bottles.

""May the bats guide you. Good morning, friends!" he said cheerfully. "What a nice day, huh? I wanted to sell them mountain-dwellers in Ambato these ingenious objects so they aren't as cold at night up there, but I must have taken the wrong turn, this river just leads to some old, abandoned Balak building. Sorry, do any of you know the way?"

"Şakan, against her better judgment, found herself staring at him, like she had just witness someone break the laws of physics in front of her eyes. It all felt wrong. How does commerce find its way into every single corner of the world? It was downright exasperating. On top of that, she hadn't expected anyone to build houses here, much less Balaks. Briefly, she wondered if she was still sleeping and dreaming, it would explain everything. Things would make sense.

"– "Oh hey, it's you, Siiahoone!" Sam grinned, as he did so often. "Don't you know the way? Just go back to the larger stream, go upstream and take the first one on the right!" Sam replied. "But before you go, please leave us some of these rubber things. We can talk about compensation via mail."

"Şakan eyes went even wider. Do all people in the jungle just know each other? She pinched herself, but the world stayed the same.

""Sure." Siiahoone answered and threw them over. One of them landed on Başanon's face much to Şakan's amusement, a momentary distraction from her unfolding existential crisis.

""See you later, Sam!"

"He turned to the two passengers. "In case you get wet and cold again" he said with a smirk.

"Başanon chuckled in response. "They also seem to be good to temporarily blind people with!"

"– "Yeah, isn't it amazing how multipurpose they are? Bet you didn't know all the useful things using stuff from the jungle!" Sam said, his smirk growing wider until he had erupted into laughter, which quickly spread to Başanon.

"Şakan could only smile nervously, head still racing with thoughts. She found herself unable to pay any attention to their surroundings anymore, as she was still stuck on what Siiahoone claimed to have seen, feeling like a detective realizing she was lacking at least one crucial clue to solve the puzzle she was confronted with.

– Part 24 –

"With her initial enthusiasm gradually supplanted by rumination, new anxieties crept in. What if she got one of the numerous tropical illnesses? There aren't exactly pharmacies nearby. She really should have been more carefully prepared. Now she could only hope that Sam would know how to avoid them. Honestly, she and Başanon were so lucky to have such a capable guide. Just imagining how it would have all gone if they had ventured into the forest alone made her shiver.

"Hours passed eventlessly, and it was already past noon when Sam steered the boat to a spot where the vegetation had clearly been disturbed. Twigs and branches of trees had been cut or snapped off, undergrowth had been flattened and the soil had been tramped down to be solid and compact. As they got closer, a trail of footpaths leading from the forest to the shore became visible.

"Several different footprints, of a whole group of people. Her heart began to race, and she felt powerless to stop it. There really were other people here? In the middle of the jungle? What were they doing? This was far removed from the construction projects, and she saw no other signs of human existence.

"Even more worrying was a certain all-too familiar clicking sound she could hear faintly. She took out the small device from her pocket that was producing it. Faint but unmistakeably elevated levels of radiation were in the air here. Being so overran by anxiety and nervousness rather than the excitement and enthusiasm she had had just last night was almost upsetting to her. Was this not what she wanted?

"As if trying to prove a point to herself, she moved past the two men she was traveling with and jumped off the boat so quickly it hadn't yet been brought ashore and almost toppled it with her violent moving, causing Başanon to have to hold on to Sam for balance, embracing him in a manly hug.

"She expected to be greeted by the same wall of sounds as she had the day before near the shelter. Instead, she encountered the eeriest silence she had ever experienced. No bird was calling, no frog ribbiting and no insects buzzing. The trees also lacked the lush appearance, some seemed in fact rather weak and ill.

– Part 25 –

"Together it all managed to stopped her in her tracks after all. What should she even do? She stood there motionless for an unclear amount of time, listening to any kind of noise but hearing nothing but her increasingly labored breathing. Her eyes darted from corner to corner. The uncertainty of what lay ahead, where the footprints led to, what caused radioactivity here, as well as what might be hiding behind a sickly tree or in the underbrush was starting to make her chest feel tight and have her almost gasp for air. Now it all seemed destined to go horribly wrong and she started feeling hopelessly in over her head.

"A part of her mind, trained by years of hardship and meditation, fought a fierce battle against the wave of desperation washing over her mental landscape. Her memories of attending religious service and listening to priests narrating stories of struggle and its meaning, of pushing a rock up a mountain, so you can use it as foundation for your home on the beautiful summit. It takes everything out of you. One false move, and the rock crushes you. It is hard to do alone, near impossible.

"But, she remembered, she wasn't alone. And she wasn't unprepared. She had studied this, only in theory, but still. There was a reason why she was here. If not her, who else? She had made it this far, and no one else had even considered taking the first step. It was up to her now. And her companions. She could do it, and she would have to do it.

"And now, as the clouds surrounding her mind began to disappear, she began to remember what stressful situations called for. All she needed was to follow what she had learned years ago in her home temple. She briefly tensed up every muscle in her body she could feel, held her breath, then gradually relaxed and took a slow, deep breath. After repeating the exercise six more times, she stepped up to Başanon, who was still sitting in the boat, as if procrastinating on entering the forest, and exclaimed:

""We still have a mission to complete. What are you waiting for? Thagha does not think highly of those who shirk from their destiny." She didn't have to think of what to say. The words just came out of her mouth, like a short, but forceful downpour.

"The man she was addressing involuntarily flinched before putting on a grin. But the insecurity he was trying to hide was still visible in his eyes.

"– "Hey now, take it easy. I was just... admiring the forest and trying to figure out where the footprints could be leading to!" he hastily replied.

""We only need to follow them to find out!" she said.

"– "You two go ahead and have fun. I will stay here and wait for you." Sam added, his tone betraying that his thoughts were currently somewhere else.

"He didn't receive any reply.

""You'll be fine." he continued. "I and Huuva will look for you if you don't come back after a few hours."

"Şakan was about to remark on how they both would prefer not to venture into the jungle alone when she heard some airplane engines in the distance, slowly coming closer. They wouldn't be alone after all, it seems.

– Part 26 –

"With her heart beating faster again, they went on their way, carrying nothing but the small supplies bag with some water, nuts and dried fruits the sound of twigs breaking, leaves crunching and the mud sloshing below their feet the only sounds accompanying them, aside from the continuous clicking sound coming from her pocket that soon faded into the background for her. To not let herself be terrorized by what she could not see, hear or even feel, she kept her breathing pointed and rhythmic, her steps steady and determined and her mind focused on her goal. She might be thrusting herself into danger, but that's what she was here for. That's what they both were here for. Science required sacrifices, after all.

"They continued in silence, Şakan in the lead and Başanon right behind her. Very rarely did they encounter any indication of animals. Sometimes it was as if they heard a cry in the distance, maybe of a deer? Or something else entirely. Did Jute even have deers? An hour or so later of wandering through green-brownish territory that seemed to progressively let in less and less light from above they noticed the trees had an odd reddish color. The clicking in her pocket was now slowly getting more frantic.

"Next to one of them they came across a plain white safety helmet with symbols and words they didn't recognize – "Van – Esoohi a saa u vifi". Şakan managed to make out with her phrasebook. She flipped through the small language guide. "Danger – ... Spread of waves and ...". The last word wasn't in it. Evidently, tourists weren't expected to encounter it. But the other words made no sense to her either. For the life of her, she couldn't imagine what dangerous waves there could be in a jungle.

"The footprints were still there and even seemed getting more numerous as they wandered on. But under the dark canopy of the various palms and other tropical trees, towering several meters above them, it was still hard to make out where they led to. The silence from their surroundings was still as oppressive as before, and being the only source of sound made her feel much more like they were intruding somewhere they weren't supposed to be. This was no place she wanted to stay and wonder, her enthusiasm had long since made way for apprehension and uneasiness again, but her determination remained.

"After another half an hour of walking, the sun already being noticeably lower than when they had set out, the geiger counter in Şakan's pocket was now clicking even faster, becoming hard to distinguish. It chilled Şakan to the bone, sending several shivers down her spine.

"She dared not even to speak aloud, just wondering to herself whether they were now finally reaching the habitat of the bats they had been looking for. But with everything so lifeless, were they too late?

"Some more minutes of cutting through thick undergrowth and moving past sickly vines they came across something they never had expected to find in a jungle. A concrete wall was stretching in front of them in both directions, curving after a few meters like a perimeter. While the ash-gray structure was tall, being at least two meters high, it was still standing in the shadow of many of the highest trees that were towering over it. Clearly it was rather old and had seen better days, as roots had begun to overgrow its foundation, breaking up pieces. Cracks were visible all over the wall, and much of the top half was obscured by more dangling vines and branches. What was visible seemed to have begun crumbling already. But it was clear this wasn't just caused by exposure to the elements, some segments of the wall seem to have been damaged in a explosion not too long ago.

"The two Balaks seemed to have reached their destination.

– Part 27 –

""By Thagha, it can't be... is this really where the fire took place?" Şakan exclaimed, as if regaining her voice. She carefully looked around, trying to push away some of the branches near the mural, to see if there was any writing on it. But the murals were bare. There were also no burn marks on the exterior.

"Walking alongside the wall they found a gate. It was broken, the doors unhinged and deformed, unable to close properly. The inside of the perimeter was difficult to make out from the outside, but there seemed to be a building made from similar material inside. Şakan was apprehensive of stepping inside, as if waiting for something to come out at any moment, but eventually her curiosity and determination to not give up won out again and she entered it striding, in a deliberately exaggerated fashion to overplay any anxiety that might loom in her subconscious. She also picked up a stick that was lying around to not be entirely defenseless. And even if it would be utterly useless in any actual encounter, right now it at least helped her keep a grip on herself.

"Başanon entered with more measured steps, carefully looking around. The inside of the murals were black from smoke and soot, and much of the grass on the ground was as well. It was strangely immaculately cut and tended for, and with all the trees and other undergrowth removed it was more resembling a lawn in a posh Balak neighborhood. Showing off such imported foreign practices usually was done to prove that the owners had the time and money necessary to keep up such a "proper" appearance, and while that was weird enough in a hot monsoon-influenced climate, seeing this in the middle of a jungle with no human settlement for miles and miles on end was downright absurd. Who lived here to put all the effort into something that wouldn't even be a good status symbol, with no human around to see it?

"The constant frantic clicking of the geiger counter was harrowing, but there was no way either of them would leave now. They just had to hurry up. No one should quit so close to the finish line.

"Further inside the perimeter a building lay half-hidden behind bushes and below more vines and tree canopies that were growing more freely here for some unclear reason. Two stories, a blob of concrete, lacking any kind of aesthetical appeal, brutal functionalist design only tempered by the jungle trying to reclaim the location. The overgrowth by plants made it difficult to find any door or other opening into it.

"But a sign in front of it was still legible, barely. "Van – Esoohi a saa u vifi" it read on top. And "Danger – Radioactivity" in Balak below. Şakan got a terrible sinking feeling in her stomach. While the sign was for her stating the obvious, since the clicking, as fast as ever, of the Geiger counter didn't let her forget about it for a second, its existence at this location was more than concerning, and the inclusion of her native language added to the unease she had been building up ever since they had been at the military base. What they were discovering here didn't really seem to fit the image of science or the empire she had cultivated growing up and at university, not at all. She almost feared getting closer to understanding what had happened here in this habitat of bats.

"The hope to find them in one piece, unharmed, was dwindling. And then she remembered how the bats had caused that one official to fall ill. That had started this all! She had blanked it out the entire time, but now it was imposible to ignore. Was something similar going to happen to her and her companion? Or would it be even worse, considering the amount of bats? She still had no idea where the radioactivity was coming from that the sign and the Geiger counter were warning here of that had made them so dangerous. Nausea already seemed to be building up in her stomach, but that could also just be anxiety.

– Part 28 –

"Her anxiety mixed with her determination to finish her work were fighting inside, making her torn between fight and flight. It made her restless, and she looked around aimlessly, as if expecting guidance in the jungle or the overgrown concrete. But they remained unnervingly silent, even the man that had come with her the entire way looked just as lost as her. It was all eating her up inside. She couldn't go, but she also couldn't stay. She had to think for a moment, but her thoughts were still running as fast as a steam engine.

"Finally, she just let them all out of her mouth.

""There's got to be some sort of solution to this!" she said, pacing around. "It's like some kind of puzzle... Right, exactly. Like a puzzle, the beginning is hard, but then the pieces begin to fall into place. We just need to find the entrance, which will be our way out of here!"

"– "Entering a house to leave it. Makes perfect sense to me!" she heard her nearby friend saying, chuckling. She turned to him and involuntarily smiled, which made him laugh louder. They then both almost collapsed in laughter, until the nausea overwhelmed them again. But at least it had untied the knot that were her thoughts. Now she just had to carry out her plan.

"Carefully, she tried to remove some of the leaves covering the building and push away the larger branches, although they would often swing back, sometimes violently. One hit Başanon in the face, making him tumble backwards to the ground.

"While he was getting up, he noticed something among all the grass and mud, hardly visible below that kind of camouflage. It was a metal plate with a large handle, rusted and encroached by various weeds and plants at the edges and with writing on it that has long since become illegible. Not thinking about it much, he shrugged and pulled at it as his curiosity had required him to do. It moved, but very slowly and painfully.

"The other biologist fruitlessly continued to try to find a way inside as he was wrestling with this mysterious bit of technology, that, while evidently very modern, was in such a poor shape that it resembled a mechanism of an ancient ruin. Eventually, he began to hear a rumbling sound, slow and low, increasingly followed by what felt like a small earthquake.

"They both frantically looked around with various levels of concern on their faces. But there was nothing coming from any direction, the forest around them as eerily peaceful as before. After their encounter at the river they half-expected to meet a giant bear to trample its way to them, or something else their university lectures hadn't prepared them for.

– Part 29 –

"But there was nothing. For a moment, silence had returned, with the exception of the continuous Geiger ceaselessly reminding them of what invisibly surrounded them. They felt it towering over them menacingly, and uneasily, and still had no idea what that sound was, and whether it would return. Their eyes drifted across the perimeter and over into the green, looking for any kind of movement, trying to pick up the sound of a twig being broken or leaves rustling. Another moment passed, and it was as if Şakan could hear something. The rumbling was returning, and now she was feeling a light breeze gently sweeping past her. She broke a sweat, scanned her surroundings again, but still couldn't locate the origin of the sound.

"Then, the breeze picked up in strength and she realized it was coming from behind her, from the seemingly unpenetrable forest the adventure-biologist was standing next to. A certain dry warmth seemed to be approaching her that made her swallow hard. She turned around to look for its origin and noticed something behind the thick layer of vines, leaves and moss was moving. A screeching sound appeared alongside the rumbling, but this one seemed more familiar.

"She tried to look past the green, but it was hard to make out anything. She could only vaguely see that something seemed to be moving, and then she realized that with increasingly loud screeching it was moving in her direction. It took her another moment to see that it was a concrete door that was pushing itself to the side, and she realized she would finally be able to see the interior.

"What would she find there? She imagined all sorts of things, with her excitement and her fears competing in her mind and presenting her with some weird and terrifying pictures of illicit scientific experiments performed on bats. What building was this, really? What was that the reason for it to be here? She braced to finally uncover the solution to the mystery that had driven her for so long now, feeling the agitation in her rising, and other questions gnawing at her. What would she do next? Was this even the right location? She had been so focused on this goal, she hadn't even thought about it. There was nothing left but to hope everything would work out.

"So deep in thought was she that she missed her companion's "Watch out", but it had been too late anyway. She failed to duck in time, and various wings of a huge black and brown swarm consisting brushed past her. The surprise of it caused her to lose her balance and she fell backwards onto the ground.

"But when she looked up, she smiled. Bats. They really did find their destination. And the bats seemed to be doing fine, spreading across the sky and filling the jungle with sounds again. But her smile quickly faded. What had happened to them here? Even if the bats had survived whatever ordeal they had been put through here with no evident injuries, her worst fears were not assuaged yet. In fact, as her mind was slowly putting two and two together, they seemed less and less like a mere fear and more like a plausible hypothesis. And now she had to test it. As the scientific process demanded.

– Part 30 –

She got up and tried to clean herself of as much dirt as possible. The leather uniform she was still wearing from the flight the previous day was all things considered still looking rather decent, as it hadn't proved impossible to keep clean. It also fitted her adventurous mission, something she had come to appreciate.

She hoped to still find a specimen, or at least some evidence of the presence of the bats inside. Fittingly, the pitch-black darkness currently made it resemble a cave more than a normal house, too, but then again this hardly seemed like a normal house to begin with. She really wished she had a flashlight with her now, but almost all her tools and equipment were still in Numudu, as she had not expected to not be able to return to the town before setting off for their destination. Almost all their preparation had been rendered moot. And then she had forgotten to ask Sam to borrow his, too.

Not having any idea how to lighten their site of research she was about to resign herself to the only option that seemed to be left, trying to get back to the boat and come back later when she saw a small red light a few steps away from her. It was downright tiny and illuminated nothing, but it caught her attention and she tried to figure out what it was by carefully touching its surroundings with a branch.

Strangely, the wall seemed to yield a little when she applied pressure. She pushed a bit further and heard a click and a buzzer sound and a moment later lamps in came to life and revealed the interior of the cave, which turned out to be a hallway.

The fluorescent mercury vapor lamps that shone in a bright, but cold light gave the room an inhospitable, unsettling atmosphere that reminded her of hospitals at home and the horror stories she had heard about them. Around her everything had returned to silence, not even a rustling of leaves was audible anymore. As she tried to listen more closely, she could only hear her labored breathing. And feel how her entire body was tensing up. A thought crept up in her mind, telling her she couldn't do this. Not anymore. It took up more and more space in her mind, until it almost overwhelmed her, if it hadn't been for the part of her that was dedicated to keeping the fire of faith in Thagha alive, urging her to stay strong.

And slowly, but steadily, that part won over and brought her back again to her childhood and her meditation instructions. It helped her control her breath and face the unknown, that which she expected to contain her worst fears.

Still anxious, but determined once more she involuntarily yelled out "BRING IT ON. BATS, I HAVE COME TO SAVE YOU". Her voice, and a moment later Başanon's laughter, echoed in the hallway uncannily. She still hesitated for a moment to step inside, wary of any possible traps or other hidden dangers, throwing a stone to see if it would reveal any. But nothing happened. So one step after another one she entered the hallway, uncomfortably warm and barren. With walls that were painted blue and white and a floor made of vinyl, it really did resemble a hospital, or perhaps rather a laboratory with how covered in soot it seemed to be everywhere. Imperial flags were hanging in the distance, and various photos, charts and infographic were hanging left and right.

Some were hard to read due to the soot and smoke stains covering parts, but they all seemed to either narrate the history of the site, clearing the jungle, transporting building materials, the construction of the building and then its first activities. She examined the photos closely and they seemed to be carrying out scientific tests, but even with the descriptions nearby it was hard to make out what exactly was going on in them. The text just had a lot of vacuous buzzword-laden sentence about science and progress and a "new dawn for the empire", as if everyone reading them was expected to know all about the project here underway, so it was clearly not meant to be a public display. More a photo wall to keep reminding those working here about why they were here, and why they should stay.

Now that she took a closer look, the wall on which these things were hanging seemed to have been carelessly repaired, filler badly covering over numerous cracks in the concrete. And like the perimeter outside it was crumbling at various spots. The damaged posters praising the site as showing the future of the empire seemed all the more ironic now. What kind of future was that where your buildings are in danger of collapse due to disrepair? How could anyone even work here?

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