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ZEARA GA MOUCHE
The door in the castle hallway was one of many, but this one was unique; a path through a twisted dimensional gateway to an unknown world orbiting a distant star.
Scarcely an hour after dawn and already the alien sun was bearing down from the cloudless sky. At first guess the planet seemed too close to its star; a place baked and barren, nothing but a scorch blasted desert. Except here, on this spot, the group stood on the edge of an oasis.
Hawthorne, the mission leader, tilted his head back to gaze up at the tree. It brought back a memory of when he was six years old and his family had visited the Redwood forest in California. He remembered one tree so large that a tunnel cut through the base enabled their car to drive straight through. But the comparison to this place was laughable.
This tree in front of them rose almost a mile into the sky and the base was over one hundred yards in diameter. A quarter mile away stood another tree, its limbs barely touching this one. It was just as large, and beyond that, many more of the same. No one spoke; the effect was overpowering. He felt like an ant on the edge of a primeval forest.
Protected from the harsh climate by sleek white suits and matching helmets, the 140º F heat didn’t faze them. But those suits wouldn’t have to work quite as hard once the team found the safety of the shade.
He was leading a diverse crew. One of the group was an exobotanist by the name of Brandt. It was a fairly new field, a subset of exobiology, but this mission required her expertise. They were tasked with bringing home 50 kg of an unusual fungus that had much the same appearance as an Australian Anemone fungus, a single thick stalk with spidery red tentacles radiating from the center. This variety, however, was of a blue hue and contained a chemical from which a universal viral vaccine could be made. No one had been able to synthesize it yet, and it was endemic to this planet.
To meet the ever-growing demand, regular expeditions would be required. To be on this mission was simultaneously the chance of a lifetime and her worst nightmare. This was the third time visitors had come to harvest this life saving fungus. Eight on the first mission, six on the second, and only three of fourteen made it back alive. Brandt touched her sidearm and she shook her head. It still seemed outrageous a botanist would need to pack a gun.
Their exobiologist was Dobrovsky, and it was hoped his expertise would protect them from the apex predator in this place, the cause of the extremely high fatality rate the other two expeditions had suffered. He would be briefing them all in a few minutes and at least one or two would be angry about getting all the gory details so late in the game. But the delay was intentional.
If he filled them in too soon, the shock would have worn off by now and they might get complacent or cocky. In this place, either one of those mindsets could be fatal.
The last two, Grady and Arnoff were military. Each wore a backpack containing belt feed ammunition for the fully automatic shotguns they carried. They were operations protection. Arnoff was here for the pay, twenty thousand euros, and relieved to be part of a non-military mission where he wasn’t being shot at by hostile forces. However, all this firepower seemed … weird; they were just here to bring back some fungus. It didn’t make sense.
Grady was the sole survivor of the second expedition. His presence and experience was supposed to reassure them. He’d thought being armed to the teeth this time would offset any lingering fear, but now they were here, he wasn’t so sure. Arnoff had been pestering him for mission details, but the contract forbade him from discussing the previous expedition. And so he kept quiet. Even though Arnoff was a good friend, he wasn’t about to do anything to jeopardize the substantial paycheck they’d been promised.
Hawthorne smiled now. One hell of a tree.
He looked back at his companions in their sleek white temperature suits with gleaming white helmets; Grady, Dobrovsky, Arnoff and Brandt. Today was the culmination of a month’s training. Six weeks ago most of them had not known each other, nor known they were going to be sent to this alien world.
“Time for the last set of instructions,” he began. “Brandt, fill us in on the flora, then Dobrovsky, on the fauna.”
“Right,” Brandt cleared her throat. “As you know, we’re here to collect the Blue Anemone fungus. It’s similar to a species in Australia, having a single stalk with a blue top that looks like a starfish. Once we get up into the base of the forest canopy, via winch, at about two thousand feet, we’ll enter the jungle. That point is the top of the primary trunk, marked by a bowl shaped depression filled with water. Since the diameter of the tree is about the same there as here at the base, this pond is roughly three hundred feet across. We have no idea how deep it is. Around the perimeter of this pond, a few dozen very large secondary trunks soar upwards another three thousand feet. They each have hundreds of tertiary branches, intertwining and supporting the others. The two previous debriefing reports talk about dozens of different exotic plants, some of breathtaking beauty, with huge iridescent blooms and heady fragrances. Try not to touch them. All reports say this is a hostile world, and for our safety I’m going to assume that applies to the plants as well. Arnoff and Grady have backpacks filled with ammo belts. Hawthorne, Dobrovsky, and myself, have ours filled with dozens of hand grips and a drill to screw them into the trees to help us climb. By the time we get to about the 3000 ft level, where the fungus is, we will have used up all of our grips and will fill our packs back up with chunks of the fungus. Grady and Arnoff should have room in their packs for a couple of kilos each. That’s all I have.”
“From reading the reports of the first two missions,” Dobrovsky began, “there is a lot of animal life in the trees. We don’t know for sure, but assume there are fish and perhaps amphibians in the pond. It’s quite possible there are reptiles in the pond and among the branches. The reports mention a few small mammals which appear to be omnivores. Multiple species of birds live in the foliage, but there’s one bird and one mammal I want to talk about. The apex predator, I call it Sheidah, which in Polish, my first language, means ‘phantom’ or dark demon.’ It doesn’t seem to have any natural enemies. I suppose you might say humans are its enemy, but so far we haven’t put up much of a fight –”
“Damn Dobrovsky, you’re giving me the warm fuzzies over here,” Arnoff interrupted.
Hawthorne glared. “Shut up and listen, Arnoff.”
Dobrovsky took a few steps in the soldier’s direction. “I’m trying to put you into an emotional state somewhere between healthy respect and scared shitless. This is a huge cat, bigger than a Siberian tiger, more like a saber tooth tiger, and jet black. We’re relatively certain it’s what’s responsible for all the fatalities. We’d use infrared to track it, but air temperature is so high all life is probably cold blooded. If we sight one of these panthers, remember, your first instinct will be to panic. Don’t. If you must move, it has to be very slowly. Its attack is triggered by the flight response. If you stay still or move very slowly, it probably will not attack. However, there is some good news. A type of bird, I’ve been calling it Varovani, could be of great assistance. It looks like a large kookaburra, but more vividly colored, and gives a warning call whenever this big cat is nearby. So, we can use that to our advantage. If you hear a bird call that sounds like ‘zeara ga mouche,’ you better heed the warning.”
The exobiologist waited for any other response, but the group was silent. “So, to be safe, Hawthorne stick close to Grady. Brandt, keep Arnoff in sight.”
“What does Varovani mean?” asked Brandt.
“It’s Czech and means Fearful Premonition.”
“Lovely,” Arnoff chimed back. “Dark Phantom Demon and Fearful Premonition. Grady, old buddy, thanks so much for giving me early heads up.”
“Shut up, Arnoff, I couldn’t say anything about it.”
“It would have voided his contract,” added Hawthorne.
“Screw the contract,” Arnoff snarled. “My life is more important than your damn contract.”
“Listen up,” demanded Grady. “I was a little pissed Dobrovsky was assigned to fill you in on this place instead of me, since I’m the only one of us who’s been here before. But he got it exactly right. If you don’t pay attention at all times, if you don’t respect this world, it will kill you.”
No one spoke.
Hawthorne again gazed upward at the massive tree and was the first to break the silence. “Thick branching trees spring aloft to the very stars. . .”
“Shakespeare, what a load of crap …” mumbled Arnoff.
“It’s Boccaccio, Arnoff. You’re such a barbarian,” Brandt shot back. At five foot four, Brandt’s attitude and education were bigger than she was.
“Quotes don’t impress me, Brandt,” he sneered. “English majors aren’t much good here. An exobotanist,” he snorted. “Whatever the hell that is. How do we know if you know what you’re even talking about? What are there, like ten people in the whole world who have that job title?”
“And we didn’t bring you along because you’re a warm cuddly human being, Arnoff,” shot back Dobrovsky, “but this is a hybrid operation. We want everyone to survive this mission. That’s why we invited the Marines.”
“So, Grady and me are supposed to be flattered? Bullshit.”
Brandt stepped up to Arnoff. He was a foot taller, but she held her own with her voice. “Maybe you’ll get a chance to shoot off your big badass fully automatic shotgun, Marine. If you’re as good at that as shooting off your big mouth –”
“I’d rather be back home than here babysitting you, lady botanist. And if this mission is as dangerous as you say it is … I ain’t got no PhD like you doc, but I’m not stupid. Jump in here any time and help me out, Grady.”
The other marine just whistled. “The readout says 144 degrees Fahrenheit and five percent humidity. I think we’re in hell.”
Grady was in a tough spot. Arnoff and himself had their loyalties to each other. Everyone could guess that. What Arnoff didn’t know was he had history with Brandt.
When they’d pulled this assignment Grady had wondered why them, why him? Then he met the rest of the team and he knew. Brandt had requested it.
They’d met in college. He was supposed to be an engineering major and she was going to be a biologist, but something clicked between them. For a few months they shared some wild times, but then he flunked calculus and ended up dropping out of college.
She broke off the relationship. He joined the marines and heard she’d got her PhD. Grady never thought he would see her again. Being recruited last month for this mission proved him wrong.
“That temperature is out here only,” answered Dobrovsky, bringing him back to reality. “When we’re inside the jungle, the temp will go down to about 125º degrees, but the humidity will go up to about 95%.”
“And I’m a coool 67 degrees,” cracked Arnoff, regaining his stride.
Grady breathed a sigh of relief. He’d known Arnoff for a couple of years and knew he got wound up a little too tight from time to time. Change the subject, lighten it up, that was the best way to calm Arnoff down. Looks like it had worked again.
Brandt looked up the tree and shook her head. It was a daunting task. Mortar fire the winch cable to hit a main branch at about the 500 ft level. Hook the motor on and ride up, securing the cable to the branch. Let down the lift.
Bring Hawthorne and Grady up, lower the lift and bring Dobrovsky and Arnoff up. Then walk the branches steadily up to the top of the main trunk where the pond was. And then they still had to climb another thousand feet to find the fungus.
She felt someone standing next to her. It was Hawthorne. He was older, a little more mature. He seemed sure of himself. The salt and pepper hair, the slim build, the lined face, his demeanor was one of calm authority.
“Are you sure we can do this?” she asked.
She couldn’t see it, but he grinned under the visor. “We can do this,” said Hawthorne. He turned to the group.
“Oh,” Dobrovsky called out. “One last thing to review. A lot of things here could potentially make holes in your suit. You all have some patches, but I have the biggest supply. If you get a hole in your suit it must be repaired immediately. If your suit is damaged it will not be able to perform climate control and the air here is so stifling that within a few minutes you’ll feel like you’re smothering, and you’ll panic. Panicking will likely attract a cat. Just stay calm and let us patch your suit.”
Hawthorne nodded and turned to Brandt.
She faced the group for emphasis. “Remember, every ten grams of fungus makes enough universal viral vaccine to save a life.”
“Good. Thanks Brandt,” said Hawthorne. “Grady, Arnoff, any last comments?”
Arnoff shrugged and tipped up the barrel of his weapon. It was identical to Grady’s. “What can I say, we have the glamor job. We get to watch your butts.”
Hawthorne looked at his four companions one by one. It was a good team. “Okay, let’s climb this tree.”
Twenty minutes later Brandt was on a huge branch about 500 feet off the ground. Hawthorne and Grady had just got off the lift to join her and it was on its way back down to Hawthorne and Arnoff.
Arnoff watched the lift descend. “Hey Hawthorne. I heard you climbed Denali last year.”
“They have any trees like this on Denali?”
“What do you think, Arnoff?”
“I’ll take that for a no.” The marine grinned.
Ten minutes later they all stood on a tree branch about twenty feet wide. The bark was rough enough to walk on without worry of slipping, and the group made their way along from branch to branch. They were out of the sun, and just as predicted the temperature had dropped down to about 120º, but the humidity had started to rise.
Their suits worked perfectly, keeping them cool. There were sensors taped all over their bodies, monitoring skin surface temperature and vitals, adjusting, constantly fine tuning the temperature inside the suits.
The suits themselves were not bulky, almost having the appearance of thick spandex, and without the name labels on the front and back of their suits it might have been difficult to tell them apart. The neck collars were more full, to accommodate the helmets. These too were streamlined, but the visors had a glare coating. They could not see the faces of their companions.
Atmospheric pressure or composition was not an issue, so the suits were a far cry from the early space suits astronauts wore in the 1960s. Outside air was inhaled through respiration coils on helmets, and then cooled down to under 70º Fahrenheit. There were no air tanks, just a few pockets, a five-pound climate belt with batteries, and a removable backpack.
Dobrovsky watched Grady and Hawthorne move ahead of him, going over a branch and slowly disappearing.
“Here we are, the heart of the tree,” he heard Hawthorne’s voice on his comms.
Dobrovsky ascended the rise of the branch and caught up with them. A few moments later Brandt and Arnoff caught up.
They were standing at the edge of a dark pond, about as big as Brandt had predicted. Just as the reports said, it filled the top core of the main trunk of the tree and was surrounded by a cathedral of tree branches, all rising around the perimeter of the pond. There were gaps between all of the minor trunks that surrounded the main one, and a little light shone through from the outside, but it was noticeably darker here.
It felt like an hour after dusk. Several large brown and green lemur-like creatures, perhaps three feet tall, studied them from the far end of the pool. They’d been drinking and now they stood, nervously eyeing the humans. Brandt raised her camera a little too suddenly to take a picture, startling them; they disappeared into the trees.
Hawthorne looked back to the pond and saw a few random ripples on the surface of the water and wondered if they were from fish, or something else, something unknown.
A motion caught his eye; three blue and purple birds, about the size of herons, glided over the surface of the water, also disappearing into the trees. The colors were muted, mostly colored shades of gray. It was calming, yet dreary, peaceful, and yet oppressive.
He smelled what he imagined were flowers, some sweet, some pungent, but there was no breeze to carry the odor wafting to him, the air was dead still. Condensation collected on leaves far overhead, droplets rolled down other leaves, gathering more moisture and finally falling back into the pond like a gentle drizzling mist. It felt as if the whole place was sweating.
Out of curiosity he looked at the readout on the edge of his visor: 100 degrees, 90% humidity. Focusing back on the present, Hawthorne pressed the button on his helmet and barked out, “Okay, let’s go to Nightvision.”
Instantly the view brightened considerably. The foliage and pond were a brighter green, a red and yellow snake languorously slid down a wet black limb, and two blue and green birds perched on branches, watched them with apparent curiosity.
Two feet away from him, waist high, a grouping of brilliant red and orange flowers were splayed open like bright splashes of bright paint. In the nearest blossom, something that looked like a large moth wallowed in the dusky yellow pollen, the huge fleshy petals opened up into a bloom over a foot across, luridly accepting the insect. The insect’s motion released an almost overpowering fragrance, as if someone had drenched a rag in perfume and held it to his face.
Dobrovsky broke the silence, his voice sounding odd and detached. “This is the garden. Time shall surely reap and on Death’s blade lie many a flower curled, in other lands where other songs be sung; yet stand they here enraptured, as among the slow deep trees perpetual of sleep some silver-fingered fountain steals the world … Cummings, I think.”
“Friggin poets in paradise,” mumbled Arnoff, gazing up at overhanging leaves and vines.
Glancing to her left, Brandt was bending over slightly, gazing into one of the massive flowers.
“What’s with the colors, Brandt?” asked Grady. “This whole world is almost in the dark. What do they need colors for?”
Brandt shook her head. “Huh? Oh. Colors invite pollination and attract mates. Everything here must have very acute eyesight.”
“Just so that cat doesn’t have very acute eyesight,” said Arnoff.
“Let’s just get this done and get outta here,” replied Grady.
“What’s the matter, Arnoff,” asked Brandt. “Isn’t twenty thousand euros enough for a day’s work?”
“To hell with you, doc. Yeah, it’s a lot of money, but I figure I might not make it back from this little adventure. That’s why I get this nice big gun. It’s a trade-off, a chance I take. You hired me; if I don’t make it back then you don’t pay. It’s a wash, my life for 20,000 euros and you still get your damn mushrooms.”
Grady pointed. “Is that our little early warning bird, Brandt?”
Her eyes went to where he was gesturing, about twenty feet away. On a branch about shoulder level was a blue and violet bird. It looked to be about a foot and a half high.
“Good eye, Grady. I think you’re right.”
“Nobody scare that bird away, it’s our kookaburra buddy,” Dobrovsky cut in. “Try to keep your eye on it and pray it doesn’t start squawking.”
Hawthorne chose a secondary trunk and they started climbing. The effort was becoming slightly more strenuous and he watched the master display inside his helmet, keeping a close eye on everyone’s vitals. All seemed well, but his own heart was pounding in his chest. He wasn’t sure why, but it was raising his anxiety level.
“Hey boss,” Dobrovsky’s voice came in over his comms. “Talk to me. Are you okay?”
“Your pulse is up to 97.”
“I’m fine, really.”
“Hawthorne, take a deep breath, relax.”
His mind went back to when he was a kid climbing the cherry tree in the backyard on warm summer evenings. One night, just before dusk, he had disturbed a bat. Startled, it bit him on the leg. He’d screamed and almost fallen out of the tree. He just knew that any day he was going to contract rabies and die. But the bite had healed, catastrophe was averted.
He shook off the memory. “Hey Arnoff, see any bats?”
“Not a one, Hawthorne. Whoa, check this out.”
Hawthorne turned to see Arnoff holding out his arm, staring at a big green and orange spider. Just then it scurried toward his hand, stopped and bit the glove.
Arnoff shook it off. “You little bastard! Guys, suit puncture here, need a little help, fast.”
Dobrovsky unzipped a pocket and pulled out a round patch, three inches in diameter. “No problem, gimme your hand.”
“What’s wrong back there?” Brandt’s voice came through.
“Spider bite through the suit. Arnoff has a puncture, fixing it now,” answered Dobrovsky. “How’s it goin’, marine?”
“Interior temp up to 84, humidity at 67%, getting a little uncomfortable,” answered Arnoff. “Hurry up, man.”
Dobrovsky slapped the patch on and it fused instantly. “Done.”
“Your numbers are going back down,” said Hawthorne.
“Did it bite you?” Brandt called back.
“Huh, oh, no, just through the suit. Thanks,” Arnoff nodded to Dobrovsky.
The exobiologist nodded back, hoping his value had gone up a little in Arnoff’s estimation.
They continued upwards, watching for the kookaburra, and pointing it out whenever someone caught a glimpse. It gave them some peace of mind and the bird’s silence was reassuring.
Thick wet vines hung about them bearing leaves three to four feet across, sagging with moisture. Ivy wrapped tightly around branches, rustling from the movement of sinewy snakes navigating through their dark crevices. An orange lizard, two feet long, perched on a branch above them. It peered down, flicking its tongue, licking its massive eyes. On a leaf nearby, a dragonfly of prehistoric size perched, vibrating its dewy wings in an apparent attempt to dry them so it could take flight.
A dark blur flashed across Dobrovsky’s foot and he looked down at his boot, startled at the sight. It was torn open in a huge gash and blood was oozing out.
He plopped down on a root. “Brandt, I need your help, now.”
She was at his side in an instant and examined his damaged left foot. “My God, what happened?”
“Something raced across my foot. I hardly saw it, and then this …”
“Does it hurt a lot?”
“Stings, burns some,” he answered her.
Brandt had torn off her backpack and was rifling through it. Dobrovsky thought the motion was uncharacteristic. This was no calm bedside manner of reassurance and he was getting caught up in the frantic mood.
“Please, find a patch, Brandt.”
“Gotta get the bleeding stopped first.” Her voice was terse. She grabbed gauze and pressed down on the torn fabric to staunch the flow of blood.
“It shouldn’t be bleeding like this. I’ve got to get the bleeding stopped before I can patch it.”
Grady was at her side now. “What’s wrong?”
Brandt took a deep breath and tried to sound calm. “There’s some sort of a watery anti-coagulant mixed in the wound. I’ve got it pretty much soaked up. Grady, give me some new gauze.”
“Here you go,” he handed off a fistful.
“Okay,” said Brandt after a moment, “I think I’ve got the blood stopped. Now let’s patch this suit.”
“Humidity is 70%, temp is 90 degrees,” said Dobrovsky.
“Calm down Doby, all we gotta do is seal you back up.” She whipped out a patch and slapped it on, swearing under her breath.
“What’s wrong?” Dobrovsky sounded alarmed.
“It isn’t sticking at all. Shit!” She wadded it up and threw it aside. “The anti-coagulant, it’s affected the surface of the suit and the adhesive doesn’t stick. Besides that, the gash is on your ankle. We don’t have a flat surface to work with.”
Grady peeled off another patch and slapped it on, squeezing it to the boot with both hands. “Come on man, let’s get this to stick.” He pressed down hard and for a moment it seemed to be working. But lifting his hands up, the patch, sticking to his hands, came loose. “Fuck!”
“95 degrees, 85% humidity,” Hawthorne’s voice came through. “What’s happening, Br –”
“Dammit. Hawthorne,” she hissed, “We’ve got a problem with the tear in Dobrovsky’s suit. There’s some liquid on the gash, a secretion from whatever did this.” She grabbed another handful of gauze and desperately wiped the whole area off. “Here, let’s try this.”
Grady gave her two patches and she applied the first one. It held and fused. She slapped the second one on. It fused to the other patch, but held to the boot surface for only a moment before it began to come loose.
She was running out of time. “What are your numbers, Dobrovsky?”
“100 degrees, 88% humidity. What’s wrong, why isn’t this working?” He was panting now. “Hurry up. I’m getting claustrophobic here.”
She slapped on another patch. “Fuse, dammit. Come on!”
“109 degrees, 90% humid. It’s no good, it’s no good. I can’t breathe.”
“Stop looking at the damn numbers,” Grady cut in.
Dobrovsky was gasping. “Look, we’re just a little ways from the pond. I’ll get down there and stick my foot in the pond. The water will keep the air and humidity out …”
“No!” shouted Brandt. “It’s too far, the water might be toxic, we don’t know what’s living under the surface. You’re an exobiologist, you know better than that. You can breathe. There’s plenty of air. Just hang on; slow deep breaths.” She stood up to see where their leader was. “Hawthorne, I need you over here.”
Dobrovsky bolted. Must get away from the heat. It felt like being tangled in hot waterlogged sheets. Had to get away from the group, his panic was endangering them, and the water would save him. Down the branch he ran. The pond was close, he could make it.
“Dobrovsky!” Brandt screamed.
Grady grabbed her arm. “Don’t. There’s not really anything you can do, is there?”
“No,” she said flatly, watching their exobiologist disappear into the dark foliage.
The pond was close, another ten feet. It felt like he had been running forever. Sweat poured down his face, burning his eyes; so weak, so worn out, whole body drenched with perspiration.
Dobrovsky collapsed at the edge of the pond. Smiling relief, he rolled into a sitting position and plunged the torn up foot into the water, up to the knee. The murk burned the gash, but he knew the water would keep out the wet suffocating heat.
The temperature and humidity were dropping now; the panic abating. But his blood trickled into the pond, red liquid swirling with the green algae, whisping into the watery gloom, alerting the life that lived below the surface, the life that lived on the things that came down to the pond to drink. Dobrovsky’s blood was alien blood; a new smell, and it woke up something that wanted to feed.
There was a single short scream. It cut through their headphones and the thick fetid air. It silenced the jungle; a moment of silence to acknowledge death, and they all held their breath.
“Dobrovsky. Dobrovsky, come in,” Hawthorne spoke into his mike.
“Dobrovsky. This is Brandt. Do you read me? Dobrovsky…”
Arnoff swore under his breath.
Grady cleared his throat. “What cut his foot open, Brandt?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, stunned.
“Was it a panther?” asked Hawthorne.
“No,” said Brandt. “It was something new, something we don’t know about.”
“Was it a mammal, a reptile? How big was it?” Arnoff interrogated her.
“I said I don’t know,” Brandt shot back.
“Dammit, don’t tell me about something ‘new’, Brandt,” yelled Arnoff. “I’m looking for a big black cat. I can handle that. What the hell am I supposed to do about something I can’t even see? So now Dobrovsky is dead. Was he our panther food, our sacrifice? Now the cat has been fed are we safe, Brandt? Or don’t you know that either?”
Hawthorne stepped between them. “Shut up and get back in position, Arnoff. Grady, give me Dobrovsky’s pack.”
The marine tossed the pack to their leader, paused, turned, and they moved on.
The grim mood kept them silent. No matter what dark and beautiful scenes came into view, they no longer paused to take them in. Now it was only about survival. Get the fungus and get out. The interior of the jungle was more gloomy, dusky, the smells more overpowering, the animal sounds more dissonant.
There were clucking sounds, and voices of frogs, snakes hissing and strange shrieks, sounds that resembled human moaning, crying.
Dear God, thought Brandt, could Dobrovsky somehow still be alive?
“Hawthorne,” she called out. “Do you have any reading on Dobrovsky at all?”
“No, none. All of his lights are out.”
And then they heard it, off in the distance, tentative at first, hesitant to announce its fearful message;
“Zear… Zear… Zeara ga mooouch… Zeara ga mooouche…”
It was the bird cry, beginning with a shriek and ending with an audible sound of air rushing out in an evil hiss. It sounded exactly like they’d been told.
“Zeara ga mouche …” the bird cried again in the thick dripping shadows.
Grady dropped a shell into the chamber of his gun and Brandt heard his fierce whisper. “Come on. Come out where I can see you.”
“We’ve had our alarm, people,” said Hawthorne. “Everybody stay close, move slow, stay alert. Grady and Arnoff, be ready.”
Brandt glanced over to her left and up onto a branch, and then she saw the bird. She stopped and Grady almost ran into her.
“Keep going, I’ll be there in just a sec. I’m taking some pictures of this bird. It’s only about five feet away, the closest we’ve been to it. This could be useful in the future.”
“It’s not doing its call right now though,” said Arnoff. “That’s good, right?”
“I hope so.” She raised her camera and snapped four pictures as everyone moved beyond her.
“I’ve found your Varovani, Dobrovsky,” she whispered. “He’s beautiful.” Suddenly Grady’s foot caught on something and he stumbled, falling to his knees.
Brandt heard him and turned. “You all right?”
“I’m fine. No punctures, no injuries.”
“Good.” Brandt turned back toward the bird, but it was gone. Instead, underneath the limb, a black shadow crouched in the dark gloom. She wanted to scream, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper. “Grady. Cat.”
“Huh, what the hell … don’t move Brandt, I’ve got this.”
Grady was about twenty yards beyond her, a tree trunk blocking his view. He could maneuver for a shot, but would there be enough time?
Involuntarily Brandt began trembling inside her suit. This beast was enormous, much bigger than a tiger, so black it glistened, and like a panther in appearance. It had saber tooth fangs, probably six inches long, and shorter ones about half that length jutting up from the bottom.
A low, almost continuous growl emanated from the throat of the cimmerian monster. A forked tongue flicked in and out of its mouth, and that seemed out of place until she stared into those eyes. The eyes, they had her frozen. Pale yellow, with reptilian slits for pupils; focused, determined and intense.
It seemed almost impossible for her to look away. Her reflective face mask kept the beast from seeing her own facial expression, but that was little comfort.
Right now this creature cared about nothing else. Brandt’s initial motion had betrayed her to the cat, but terror froze her in place. It would not attack until she moved again. The panther’s ear flicked in the darkness, adjusting for any sound. Black nostrils flared slightly, searching for the smell of fear.
This escalating intimidation was designed to overwhelm, to move the terror from her muscles to her mind, paralyzing all logical thought. A drop of sweat started at her shoulder blades and slowly glided the full length of her back, and she knew this predator somehow sensed even that minute motion, reacting with almost imperceptible muscle motions in its body as it coiled, ready to pounce. Those twitches were setting off all her primeval alarms, her primitive brain firing like alternating current, flight or fight, flight or fight. But neither was possible, she could never run that fast, and fight … that would bring almost instant death.
A colossal dragonfly, brilliant green and over a foot long, swooped in, hovering between them, and she almost cried out from the surprise. It buzzed, paused, darted, and it seemed even that movement, that sound, would trigger the attack. But the panther didn’t flinch from the insect, move its head or even its eyes. The kill was all that mattered to it now. The insect zipped away into the darkness. Another rippling muscle twitched.
“Oh God, Grady,” Brandt whispered, crying, “hurry as fast as you can, as slow as you can. It’s gonna pounce, it’s gonna pounce. Should I try to pull my sidearm and shoot it?”
“No!” whispered Grady fiercely. “It’s too close. You’d never make it. I’ve got a good view, in position, standing up now, starting to raise my gun. It’s going to be okay, Carla.”
It was the first time he’d called her by first name in years, and it helped. But her knees were weak, muscles cramped. Light headed, adrenaline was now roaring through her body, the metallic taste filled her mouth. Brandt looked at her heart monitor. 171. Her throat was closing off, even as she began to hyperventilate. Fight or flight, fight or flight.
Those instincts were never intended for a situation like this. Somehow the panther knew its prey could not hold this terrified paradox for much longer.
“Grady,” Hawthorne’s voice came through. “What in the hell is happening?”
“It’s okay, shut up and let me work.”
“Do you need Arnoff back there?”
Her trembling was now almost impossible to control. “Grady … hurry please,” she sobbed.
The gun at his shoulder, Grady squeezed the trigger once and a red laser point appeared on the panther’s shoulder. The beast shifted its weight one last time.
“No!” screamed Brandt.
Grady squeezed the trigger again. The weapon roared and in two seconds 40 rounds fired.
The smoke cleared. Hawthorne and Arnoff had rushed back and now they were crouched around Brandt. She had collapsed in a heap and was just now regaining her bearings.
“Did you kill it?” she mumbled.
Grady looked over at where his target had been. The limb was shredded, on the verge of collapse. Intermingled with the torn up wood were blood splatters and tufts of black fur. His eyes surveyed the scene and then puzzled, he looked around for the carcass.
“Did you get it, Grady?” Brandt’s voice was insistent.
“I hit it,” he called back.
“But did you kill it?” Hawthorne asked.
The marine took a few steps, stopped, backed up, spun around, listened, gun at ready and shook his head.
“Where are you, Sheidah?”
“It got away?” Arnoff asked. “How in the hell could you miss…?”
“I hit it, damn it,” Grady shouted back. “Nothing could move that fast. Nothing could survive that much firepower. There’s got to be a dead panther around here somewhere.” A shrug and he spun, walking back to the group. “We’ll find the carcass around here, keep your eyes open.”
Brandt had regained her composure, standing beside him, and thought she’d seen him shudder. “This place is the evil twin of paradise.” She pulled the foot long sheath knife out of the scabbard on her leg.
“What are you doing, Brandt, a little souvenir?”
“You might say that, Arnoff.” Brandt bent down and dug some bits of fur out of the wood. “A little DNA analysis.”
She sighed. “I wonder if shooting that cat is gonna screw up the balance of the ecosystem.”
“Now you’ve hurt my feelings,” said Grady.
At first she thought he was angry, then she decided he was just kidding. “How’s that, Grady?”
“I just saved your butt and you’re wondering if I damaged the ecosystem of this tree. Did you ever think taking the fungus out of the tree, or drilling holes in the trunk for steps, or just us being here, is upsetting the ecosystem? But what really hurts me deeply,” he paused for effect, “is your lack of gratitude.”
“You’re right. Thank you Grady, for saving my life.”
He smirked. “You’re welcome.”
They reached a spot where vertical ascent on foot became more difficult and soon there was no way to go but straight up, with no branches to climb.
It was shortly before noon. Hawthorne broke out the drill, chose a trunk, about six feet in diameter, and started drilling step rungs into the tree. Each step was about eight inches long, tubular and extremely lightweight. With the drill it took less than ten seconds for each step. He placed them about a foot and a half apart and after a few were in place, the four of them started the climb. They emptied Dobrovsky’s pack first, and then started on his.
After about two and a half hours they were approaching the 3000 foot level. Brandt looked at her watch. It was about nine hours until sundown.
“Straight up, twenty feet. I think I see the fungus,” called out Hawthorne. “Greenish blue glow, right on schedule,” he announced with the sound of satisfaction in his voice.
“I’m sure that’s really reassuring to Dobrovsky,” mumbled Grady.
Hawthorne reached the fungus a few minutes later, and drilled steps all around the perimeter of the tree so everyone could help gather it. Brandt started breaking off pieces and filling her pack. It went quickly. By the time Grady and Arnoff had moved into place, Hawthorne and Brandt were almost done.
Grady broke off a chunk and took a moment to study the light crumbly fungus. He unzipped a pocket on his chest.
Brandt looked over and saw him examining the sample. “Souvenir?”
“Yeah, this is some weird stuff.” He stuffed it into his pocket. “We didn’t get this far last time I was here.”
Suddenly they heard the warning cry again. Zeara ga mouche…
“Okay,” said Hawthorne. “We’re done. Let’s get out of here, slowly.”
“Wait a minute,” whispered Grady. “I think I see a cat.” He pointed up above them.
“Where?” asked Arnoff.
Brandt looked intently and thought she saw the yellow eyes staring back at her.
“I need to hold onto the tree, so I can’t use the shotgun, but I think I can get it,” said Grady. He pulled out his sidearm and aimed carefully, holding onto a step with his left hand and the gun with his right. He fired two shots.
“Did you hit it?” asked Hawthorne.
“I dunno. Maybe.”
As they descended the rungs, Brandt’s gaze darted everywhere, searching for black fur and yellow eyes. It was obvious Grady had wounded a panther, but how badly?
What about the second sighting? Did he hit that one? Was there more than one cat to a tree? Did wounding one simply make it more dangerous and unpredictable?
It was frustrating to her that no one else seemed quite as concerned, but then no one else had been face to face with the monster either.
In half an hour they’d made their way down to the bottom of the rungs. Hawthorne checked his watch. “Eight hours until sundown. Whoa, that was weird.”
“What’s weird?” asked Grady.
“My Nightvision flickered off for a second. Anybody else have that problem?”
“Mine did a while ago, but it came right back,” said Arnoff.
“That’s all we need,” grumbled Grady.
They stayed in formation, descending down the big branches, doubling back, looking for the path of least resistance. No one spoke; they walked and listened to the jungle.
Huge green leaves dripped water, and a red and black snake, about six feet long glided down a slippery glistening branch. And they heard the bird cry again, this time slightly ahead of them. A moment later, another cry behind them.
“What do you want us to do, Hawthorne?” said Grady. “Possibly two birds. That means at least one cat, maybe two.”
“Uh, okay,” Hawthorne paused. “Stay calm, we hadn’t really considered this contingency.”
“Shit,” grumbled Arnoff. “And that’s why we should’ve had military leading this expedition.”
“Shut up, Arnoff. That insubordination just cost you a quarter of your pay.”
“Then come on Hawthorne, make some tactical decisions! This is war, us against the panther. We need to be in defensive position.”
It was quiet for a moment and then another shriek.
A pause. Hawthorne came back on. “Where are the birds now?”
“Dammit,” Arnoff growled. “Do something, give some orders.”
Grady cut in. “I hear two birds, now both behind you Arnoff. Do you hear anything in front of you?”
“No, it’s quiet ahead of us now.”
“Get up here then. I think we’re about 40 to 50 feet in front of you.”
Grady turned to Brandt. “Pull your sidearm. I’ll be right back.”
The sound of Arnoff’s gun shattered the silence.
“Over to the right!” shouted Hawthorne. “Arnoff, look out!”
Grady ran. Arnoff’s shotgun was firing non-stop.
“Arnoff!” Hawthorne yelled.
The firing stopped. “Gun jammed,” Brandt heard Arnoff mumble.
“Arnoff, Hawthorne, sidearms!” Brandt heard Grady’s loud voice. In the darkness, pistols roared, firing over and over, mingled with confused frantic shouting. Then silence.
“Grady, what’s going on?” called Brandt. Her gun was drawn and she held it with both hands, hyper alert, aiming wherever her gaze went.
A pause, and she tried again. “Grady. Grady!”
“I’ll be there in a second, Brandt. Cat got both of them.”
A blur flashed across Brandt’s left shoulder, slashing open her suit, cutting deep through skin, bringing blood and an instantaneous burning sting. Howling in pain, her hand went instinctively to cover the wound and she was alarmed by how freely it was bleeding, soaking through the fabric.
Terrified, Brandt spun, focus everywhere, finally stopping the frenzied search when she saw the kookaburra sitting on a branch about fifteen feet in front of her. At least it wasn’t squawking.
But then she noticed something new; the sickle shaped back claw the bird had on each foot. And oddly, its right foot was a bright glistening red. And she shuddered, realizing the blood on the claw was her own.
A crimson droplet slowly fell into the shadows. Underneath the bird, and into the darkness she peered, to see where the crimson splattered, and instead found a pair of yellow eyes. They were fixed on her.
“Zeara ga mouche,” the bird shrieked, and Brandt’s view went back to the bird, to black eyes watching her. Eyes with no expression, yet still somehow smug. And she shook her head in stunned disbelief.
“Son of a bitch, it never even crossed my mind. Grady, where are you!?”
“Be there in ten seconds, Brandt.”
“Grady. The bird and the cat; they hunt together.”
He heard two shots and a scream. “Carla!” his lungs emptied in one long cry. There was silence, and he knew she was gone.
As fast as he could Grady found his way back to where he’d left her, but there was no trace, nothing.
With no one left to save, he was exposed and alone, and the urgency of motion now felt like a very bad idea. Figuring the pond was about two hundred yards further, he moved cautiously towards it, trying to strike a balance between urgency and discretion. Just then his Nightvision flickered off.
Pausing his retreat, Grady gave his helmet a thump and it blipped on for a moment but then failed. His world went black.
Terrified now, he reached out, waving arms slowly, groping into the blind darkness, trying to find something; anything solid. He turned to his right and reached further, finally finding a tree trunk. Carefully moving his body against it, Grady slowly slipped into a sitting position, back to the trunk, shotgun laid across his legs, just above his knees.
Perhaps if he sat here awhile, his eyes would adjust enough for him to find his way back to the pond. He might get lucky and have the Nightvision start working again.
Sitting perfectly still, straining his eyes, he tried to make out shadows, any sort of contrast between black and gray, but the black void was as smothering as the jungle.
The interior readouts illuminated the inside of the helmet and he shut those off to keep from interfering with his own night vision. Grady closed his eyes to hasten their adjustment.
After a while his heart slowed, muscles relaxed a little, adrenaline faded, and the illusion of night invited him into a drowsy state of mind. It was emotional exhaustion, and it lulled him into a twilight daze.
A few minutes later a slight rustling sound brought crisp alertness. His eyes seemed to have adjusted to some extent and the view now almost felt bright as a starless night. Grady could see enough of the branches that he might be able to grope his way through to the pond.
And then there it was, on a branch, about ten feet in front of him. A panther. A shadow in the darkness, it moved slowly toward him, but its manner seemed disinterested, relaxed. It was tentatively observing something, which didn’t belong, something somehow out of place, and Grady sensed his lack of motion prompted the beast to curiosity. Right now he wasn’t a potential meal, just an odd white mass occupying a spot in the cat’s territory.
He sat frozen as the cat came closer. In a moment it was five feet from him, and then two. It began sniffing his feet and his leg, moving closer. And then, smelling at his face; panther eyes, nose and fangs separated from Grady’s face only by his visor, less than two millimeters thick.
The smell of damp fur drifted into him, and he was aware of the sound of the monster’s breathing. The eyes transfixed him, studied him, nostrils flared as it sniffed and Arnoff could tell its muzzle was wet. Goosebumps raced across his skin and he thought it impossible the cat could not hear his heart beating out of his chest. If Grady could hear it so loudly in his own ears, how could it not be audible to the whole jungle?
Any motion would betray him and he would no longer be an unexplainable anomaly, but a beating heart, another life, another meal. Left arm lay motionless in his lap. Right hand rested on his leg and his fingers felt the pistol grip. Next to that was a sheath knife. Either one might kill the cat, but he could never move that fast. The panther turned its head to the right and its muzzle left a smear of blood on Grady’s visor. It was probably Brandt’s. And that thought caused an involuntary gasp to escape his lungs.
A quiet plop caught his attention and in the darkness Grady discerned a black spot on his arm. He could only imagine it was another big spider, one with a taste for their suits.
Somehow he suppressed the instinct to flinch, but the sound caught the cat’s attention and it turned its head back. There was a quick flick of the reptilian tongue and the spider was gone. The cat turned its head slightly as if to survey the surroundings once more, still trying to comprehend this aberration in its territory.
A growl was slowly rising in its throat and the beast laid its ears back flat, a saber tooth silhouette in the darkness. Abruptly it opened its mouth wide and roared, a terrifying, deep primal sound that thundered through the tree, trembling every leaf. Grady clenched his eyes tightly, waiting for death. But after a moment the cat stretched, reached up and dug its front paws into the trunk of the tree and then climbed up and away.
Grady began shaking, emotions whipsawed, for a few minutes he could do nothing but sit and sob. Finally able to compose himself he slowly stood and studied the surroundings.
A faint glow of light emanated through a patch of leaves and it seemed a good guess as to where the pond would be. Stepping deliberately, it was crucial to be sure feet were planted on the branch. With the possibility of safety becoming more real, failure now was unthinkable.
Each step seemed to bring a few more lumens of light, leaving no doubt this was the right direction. In another few minutes he was at the pond and passed it with scarcely a look. The winch was the goal now. His eyes were dead ahead, but his ears were tuned to the slightest disturbance.
Since there were no longer any voices to interrupt, he turned the volume up to full on his helmet speakers. The background static was annoying but it was a small price to pay. Grady stopped and listened, pleading for the bird to be silent.
Hearing his heart again, he fought for calm and tried to quiet his breathing. Listen to the jungle. Even the slightest change could be important.
It was early evening now, but he was approaching the outer branches and there was more light. And now, Grady thought he could see the branch with the winch cable wrapped around it. Almost there.
But then, again, off in the distance, “Zeara ga mouche…”
“Zeara ga mouche…”
He whirled around and searched the limbs, gun barrel pointing everywhere. Patches of light, flashes of dark, there were panthers everywhere and nowhere. Panicking, he raised his gun and aimed it high into the trees. Grady pulled the trigger twice in succession and held it down the second time, screaming in fear as he sprayed gunfire in huge wide arcs; leaves and branches blown apart from the firepower.
His trigger hand was frozen from his terror, and the gun fired until the gun belt in his pack was depleted. Dropping the shotgun he pulled his sidearm, scanned the jungle, and ran the last few yards to the winch, climbed in the basket and rode it to the ground. Not until he climbed out and had his feet on the ground was Grady satisfied he had escaped. Stopping for a moment, he bent over, hands on knees, and took a few slow deep breaths.
Off in the distance the sun was approaching the horizon and it appeared to be about an hour before sunset. Finally standing up straight and walking away, he looked over his shoulder back at the tree for one last look, still amazed he’d survived.
A few minutes later he’d reached the entrance to the portal.
Then Grady remembered his pocket. Reaching in, he pulled out the sample handful of the fungus, the few small crumbly pieces, perhaps 40 grams in all, perhaps enough to make enough viral vaccine to save four lives.
Arnoff had been right. It was a wash.
Blog for Reg Johnes: http://divisionofthedamned.blogspot.de/