It pissed her off, again, but he had to stop. It was easier in the dark, cooler, if wetter and they were making better going but Bernard wasn’t sure if he could keep going all night long. He hauled out Divine’s tablet and fired it up, wrinkling his nose as he scraped some flakes of dried blood from its surface. It lit him up in the dark and killed his night vision, making her twist away with that hissing, tooth-sucking sound she made when she was annoyed.
The little satellite symbol blinked in the corner of the screen and finally went solid. The map on the screen swung drunkenly and zeroed in on where he was. The damn thing had barely worked right on their way in but Bernard was damn glad it was working now. Of course, a little arrow in a sea of green wasn’t that much use to him so while she fussed around him he dabbed at the screen, zooming out until he saw something recognisable. The river. They’d get there by morning if they kept going. He was sure she knew her business but it was another thing to see it on the screen and it made him grin and relax for the first time since the attack.
“Alright, alright,” he pushed the tablet back away again and stifled a yawn with his fist, following after her with a new spring in his step.
Places like this you could pass within three or four metres of something and never see it. The darker it got the harder she was to follow through the trees and every time she was out of sight his heart leapt in his chest. He hated to be so dependent on someone he couldn’t share but a couple of words with.
This time when he caught up he took hold of her wrist. She looked at him like he was a snake but he insisted, giving her arm a tug. “What’s your name?” he tapped his free hand against his chest. “Mine is Bernard. Burr-Nard. What is your name?”
She blinked and then touched her hand to her breast. “Kiezi,” she answered, haltingly, as though it wasn’t really her name. Perhaps it was something that those who saw her called her. It would do.
Bernard let go of her arm and let her pull away. She seemed to resent the touch and the intrusion, but he felt better to know her name, nickname, title, whatever it was. She wouldn’t go too far. Somehow knowing her name made him trust her more. He picked up his step and jumped after her, almost smacking into her back as she had stopped, abruptly.
They’d stepped through the screen of trees and undergrowth into a sudden clearing. A big circle of empty, clear, flat earth surrounding a singular, enormous tree whose great leaves covered the clearing like a tent, shielding it from the sky. It was too dark to make out anything more than the vague shape of the tree and the strange growths upon it.
Shadows moved in the darkness. Unsettlingly familiar, hulking, big, human and animal combined. There was a brief flash as Kiezi’s blade found her fist and she crouched, ready to fight. Bernard brought his gun up, one foot forward, braced, ready to fire but what could be seen in this jungle night? Almost nothing.
From behind him tree-trunk arms bound his arms to his chest and crushed until his ribs creaked. “Run!” Bernard called, struggling and kicking as he was lifted bodily from the ground. Kiezi hissed and spat, but she seemed to take him at his word, ducking away and fleeing into the trees with that graceful loping stride he couldn’t match.
Stars were in front of his eyes as the shadowy creature squeezed harder and harder and he yanked down on the trigger in a blind panic. In the strobe light of the rattling gun he could see a mob of the creatures around him with their golden spears and chains. Bullets riddled the leg of the beast holding him and churned up the ground beneath him. It roared loud, over the sound of the firing and dropped him flat onto the deck. Bernard landed hard, flat on his face, the gun – empty – spinning from his grip, leaving him gasping for breath, every wheeze a stab of pain in his sides.
He looked up and saw the hulking brutes part around a thin and imperious looking man. He was as bald as the creatures but was only a man, dark of skin and clad only in the same golden metal that Kiezi wore. He barked an order in some language Bernard couldn’t begin to understand and pointed toward him with a golden stave. There was a crack against the back of his head and everything went black.
Bernard was awake. He wasn’t expecting to awaken to that was a plus. When he opened his eyes and found himself tied to a stake in the clearing wasn’t so certain that it was a plus after all. These nightmarish creatures were everywhere and now there was light to see, fires, small, burning in little pits dug into the earth.
The dancing flames revealed a scene from hell. The great dark brutes knuckled around, their spears fastened to their arms, tearing apart the body of the one he had shot in the leg and biting bloody chunks from the bone. It was foul to watch but the man in the gold didn’t seem to care and left them to it. Every one of them bowed its head and moved aside as the man paced, apparently talking to himself.
Above and behind the pacing man was the great tree and it was like nothing Bernard had ever seen before. Every branch seemed different, sprays of leaves that mimicked the plants and trees that surrounded this clearing, dense enough to channel the water to the outer edges. That and the fires meant the ground here was dry and ashen, unlike anywhere else in the jungle.
Covering its great broad trunk were strange flowers, huge and thick, waxy leaves gleaming in the firelight and seeming to pulse like monstrous organs inside a flayed open body. Bernard yanked against his bonds but they would not give, icy cold, metal, it felt like chain and just would not give. He barely dared move that much in case the beasts noticed him and he still didn’t know why he was still alive.
There was a movement from the tree an he watched, in growing horror, as one of the great black beasts took up a burning brand from the fire pit and moved closer. The flower was pulsing, moving and with a great, convulsing, silent retch the labial petals parted and in a rush of fluid another great black ape-man was spilled into the dirt in a caul of sticky goo. It pulled its way free, fully formed, huge and sleek like its brethren, though unarmed.
What was this nightmare? How could something like this even exist without being known of? How could these things hide from satellites, planes, global positioning, wars and rebels. A plant that gave birth to monstrous animal-men? A whole biological technology beyond the wildest dreams of genetic science. It was insane.
Did this man, this shaman, this jungle scientist intend to transform him? To use him? To ‘cross breed’ him somehow? He didn’t want to wait to find out and while the beasts and the gold-clad man tended to their newborn brother he leant forward hard, bracing the chain against the pole, lifted his feet against it and began to push himself up.
It hurt. The chain bit into the skin of his arms and tore the hairs from them. He clamped his jaw shut tight, so hard he feared he’d crack a tooth but inch by inch he made it to the top of the pole and toppled from it, landing with a heavy thump in the ash and dirt. The chains full away from his bloodied wrists but the thump had drawn attention. One of the inky monsters turned, white eyes and teeth standing out as its great mouth opened and bellowed an alarm. It was a word, not just a noise, they were intelligent, tool using, speaking, monsters.
Bernard scrambled back as hard as he could as the tide of creatures turned towards him and the man in gold raised his rod and barked an order. In any language, the command to ‘kill’ was unmistakable.