An Afternoon Excursion
Gordon Ross Lanser
Bright tropical sunlight soaked the plateau with warm white light, and a steady wind rustled palm leaves. In the shade of the palms, Joe and Melinda Brown and Dale and Lisa Haskins sat on a blanket eating chicken thighs and sipping chardonnay.
"This is some place you chose for us this year, Dale," said Joe. "How'd you find it?"
"Let's just say it took knowing a few of the right people and about six months of wrangling on the black market to get us here. I'm glad you like it," said Dale, his stiff, straw-colored hair mussed by the steady wind. He rubbed at his hand where the little blue lizard had bitten him an hour back. "Wait until you go on the safari," he continued, "We'll need a guide for that. They don't let you wander around down there without one."
"So I gathered from all the warning placards," said Melinda.
"It's quite a strange concept, this resort, donít you think?" asked Joe.
"Gives me the creeps," said Lisa.
"I think it's fascinating," said Joe. "You introduce a DNA virus into the population of animals, the virus speeds the rate of normal mutation, and your get an amazingly wide variety of species and sub-species in a matter of years."
"Speed evolution," said Dale.
"Yeah, but who knows what you get? This place is supposedly filled with all sorts of biological oddities -- bizarre -- I love it."
weren't even here." She put her hand on Dale's arm, flashed her blue eyes at him. "Let's get out of here and go back and sit by the pool, honey."
"I'm with Lisa on this one, Dale," said Joe. "It's getting on in the afternoon, and Mel and me would like to head back too."
Dale stood slowly, rubbed at the meat of the thumb of his right hand. The flesh was red and swollen now -- he winced, grunted. He frowned, clenched his jaw in anger. The others eyed him.
Melinda joked, "You're supposed to be relaxing, Dale, leaving your worries about the business behind."
"Sure," he said, looking up. "I'm sorry about that, I just--I've just got this bite. I don't know, I--" He stopped himself, used his wrist to wipe his forehead. He was breathing deeply, at an anxious tempo.
"You all right?" Melinda asked.
"Yeah, yeah I'm fine," he said, slowing his breathing.
"C'mon, let's get back to the room," said Joe.
"We should get that looked at," added Lisa.
Dale breathed deeply, felt the nausea and fever swell and subside. "Yeah," he said, "let's get out of here."
The shadows of the palms had lengthened by the time the picnickers had broken the site, and the sun had rotated and taken a turn toward the glistening sea. The others were already seated in the rear of the hovercraft when Dale hopped into the pilot's seat and strapped himself in. The high-powered hydrogen engine whined and a tremendous thrust of air rushed from the jets, blowing dust and bending grass away from the landing pad. They wobbled, lifted, pitched forward and moved slowly over the plateau. The resort was only three or four quick minutes away.
Dale leaned on the accelerator, the jets rotated and the craft began racing forward. A sudden surge of nausea and fever came over him; his eyes blurred, the horizon wavered. The craft dropped sharply over the plateau rim and skimmed the tops of the trees.
"Dale," asked Melinda, "shouldn't we be a bit higher?"
A wave of vertigo seized him; he throttled back.
The craft shuddered and dropped into the rain-forest treetops. Dale tried to control the dive, but the craft was unresponsive, and rolled, clipping several branches from a towering tree. There were a succession of cracks and thumps, and the jolt of complete technical failure sent them on a hundred-foot plunge to a creek-side fern grove.
Dale regained consciousness, and pushed against the clear hovercraft canopy. The canopy opened and the scent of burnt electronics singed his nostrils. He unlatched his seat belt, climbed from the craft, and turned to face his companions. They all appeared unconscious and sagged in various expressions of disability; Melinda came to first.
"Melinda, how do you feel? Are you all right?"
"My feet are trapped under here. And I think my right arm's broken," she said, using her left hand to free herself from the seat constraints. Wincing, she lifted her right arm gingerly and set the forearm on her lap.
Lisa moaned and woke. "Oh God," she muttered, bringing her hands to her face, "oh God."
"How are you, baby?"
"I feel like my head's split down the middle. I need a doctor."
"What the hell happened, Dale?" asked Melinda.
"I don't know. The craft just gave out. The controls wouldn't respond."
"Where are we?" Lisa asked, holding her nose carefully to help calm a profusion of blood.
"Well, just before we went down, I could see the resort. It's only about a mile away, in that direction, but . . ." he looked left and right and spun nervously around, "I'm not sure exactly. Anyway, we have a couple of hours before dark. We should be all right."
"But you know they don't allow anyone on this part of the island after dark."
"I know, I know. But they'll miss us. At dusk they'll miss us and come searching. We'll be all right." After a pause, he added, "Hey, shake Joe, will you, he's worrying me."
Melinda put her left hand on her husband. He was crumbled forward, his dark hair spilled across his pallid face. She shook him and said, "Joe, Joe," but he did not respond. She looked at Dale and shrugged. Dale frowned.
"There's something funny about the way he's leaning," said Dale. He reached into the back of the craft and gave Joe a push. Joe fell back limply, and Melinda immediately put her hands on him, then withdrew her hands just as suddenly as if she'd felt something unexpected.
"My God . . . Joe?" she muttered, lifting his shirt.
A metal shaft, broken from the vehicle during the crash, was protruding from his gut. She dropped the shirt immediately. A pallor fell over her and she turned away, covering her mouth to suppress a vomit. Dale grimaced and shook his head. He slammed his fist against the top of the fiberglass shell of the craft, and winced. His right hand throbbed and burned. He began massaging it, gritting his teeth as he did so.
Melinda sobbed in gasps, something deep inside wailing uncontrollably up through her throat. After a minute she choked and swallowed, and emotional numbness, the self-protective wall of trauma victims, overcame her. The sobs dulled, slowly became sniffles, disappeared.
A silence fell upon them. A remnant of a trade wind lifted fronds and wagged heavy leaves. Melinda stared from her side of the vehicle, her hand no longer over her mouth, her brown eyes showing a distance not only of focus but also of thought. She fussed with her feet, managed to get them out of the metal bind that had trapped her. "God," she said, "that hurts." The top of her right boot was slashed into ribbons, like a great claw had dragged over it. Somehow the bootlaces held the remnants onto her foot. Though there were plenty of surface scratches and cuts, she could wiggle her toes -- the injury wasn't severe. She climbed cautiously from the passenger seat and stepped down into the field of ferns. Her leg held.
"I'm all right," she muttered, "I'm all right."
From somewhere in the wall of vine and tree trunk, there came a snap of twig and a rustle of underbrush.
"Hello?" called Melinda. "Hello? Is somebody there?"
At the other side of the craft, Dale convulsed lightly, but it went unnoticed. He rubbed at his tender hand, looked closely. That bite--it was swollen and sore and burned to the touch. A sudden spurt of wild passions shook through him in a fevered tremble. They receded as quickly as they had come, but left him dizzy and confused.
Melinda stopped looking into the jungle, and began kicking through the fern grove. Joe, Joe. What would Joe want her to do? Be strong. Yes, to be strong. She found some straight sticks, formed a splint about her right forearm, tied a piece of her shirt in a knot to hold the splint in place.
There was another crack from the woods, a venomous hiss and a guttural growl. They all stiffened. Dale stepped backward, put his hand on the craft.
"What the hell was that?" asked Lisa, her face bloodied, but the flow from her nostrils having stopped.
There was no answer. Dale looked at the tangle of fern, vine and shrubbery in which they were trapped, the columnar trunks of hundred foot trees rising like so many supports for a pantheon made of jungle. What gods lurked inside it he could only imagine.
"Well?" she demanded.
"How the hell should I know," snapped Dale.
"Well, what do they have on the island?"
"Things," he said, "You read the brochures. The biological mutation virus isn't controlled -- that's the point -- the animal life constantly changes. Nobody knows exactly what's here, so how the hell am I to know."
"Calm down, Dale," said Melinda, looking up from where she was sorting through the debris, "We can't think clearly if you don't calm down."
Dale glared at her, but she held her ground. He turned from her and shook his head, tried to reel in his restless thoughts. How much time had passed? How long until sunset? The air had cooled, and the glitter of reflected light that had sparkled about them earlier had slipped into a shadowy haze. And what was out there? Voices rose in his head. The voices of the women speaking behind him contorted into dissonant sound. His brow perspired; his hand burned. Another wave of dizziness washed through him, weakened him.
There was another rustle of undergrowth and the sound of several scampering feet. There were hisses and growls now, and it sounded to Dale as though the animals were coming around to the front of the craft. But the chatter of the women broke his thoughts. The women, would they just shut up! He bent down, rubbed the heel of his palm against his forehead.
"What are those things in the jungle?" asked Lisa.
"We don't know," said Melinda, rummaging through the debris, "and I don't think we want to know." She found a first aid kit, pumped a half-dozen Advil into her mouth, sat down and began wrapping gauze around the wounds on her lower leg.
"Oh my god!" cried Lisa.
"What is it?" asked Melinda, jerking her head up to look.
"I just saw something. Something in the jungle."
Melinda looked at the drapes of vine and clouds of bush and shrub that marred the view. Nothing but shadows.
"I don't see it," said Melinda.
"It was there, it was . . . huge, ugly."
In spite of her bleary eyes and recent cry, Melinda managed to speak in a slow even voice. "Look at me Lisa, look at me, okay. Listen to me: we're going to hike out of his little piece of hell and we will find our way back to the resort, okay?"
"I think I'm gonna need some help," said Dale. He fell heavily toward the front of the craft, shook his head, a wave of dizziness overwhelming him.
His eyes were glazed in a blind, mad stare; he whirled and fell into the soft ferns that surrounded the wreckage.
"My God, Dale, Dale," Lisa cried, rushing to her fallen husband. She collapsed over him, cradled his head in her arms, began patting his cheek and mumbling.
Melinda's mind raced. She looked at Lisa, back at Dale.
Suddenly Dale sat bolt upright. "Um, rum, dum, rum, tum, fum, um, rum," he rambled.
"Dale," said Lisa, "What's wrong honey, we need you, don't do this, you have to snap out of it."
He continued to mutter nonsensically.
"Dale, what's going on," cried Lisa.
"Shut up!" he cried. His eyes opened wide, and his forehead beaded with perspiration.
"Where are we, what's happened," he said, struggling to get to his feet. He stood uneasily, wobbled.
"Dale, we've crashed in the jungle and there's things around us!" Lisa cried, "Don't you remember? What's going on! Please tell me, what's the matter with you." She edged closer to him, looked desperately into his eyes.
"I don't know," he muttered, "I feel sick, weak. It comes in waves. This time I really took a hit." He paused to catch his breath.
Melinda had been watching from the other side of the craft, but she joined them now, and pushed aside articles in the emergency kit. She found a flare gun, two flare cartridges, and an eighteen-inch flashlight. "These will help."
"A gun?" asked Lisa.
"A flare gun," said Melinda, "But we can't use it here, the canopy of trees is too thick, the flare would never get out."
There were more snaps and rustles in the undergrowth now, and Melinda did not like the sound of it. "Come on, I think it's time to go," she said.
"What about Dale, he's out of it, he can't walk."
"We'll help him," said Melinda.
Melinda put Dale's left arm over her shoulder and waited for Lisa to take Dale's right arm over hers, then they began moving off into the jungle, every stride throwing a small shock of pain up from Melinda's injured foot.
The women struggled with Dale for a few hundred feet, the jungle quickly closing about them. Leaves, vines, tree trunks, gray blades of light. Their sense of direction was lost, and Dale was no longer assisting them, but was dragging his feet. They had to stop.
"What do we do now?" asked Lisa between gasps of breath.
"I could go ahead of you, try to get help."
"I don't know, I don't know--how far do you think we have to go?"
"The island is only three miles long, and it couldn't be more than a mile and a half to the resort. But I'm worried about Dale."
"Me too." Lisa looked at her husband, saw the fever in his bloodshot eyes.
"I can make it," muttered Dale. "I can."
There was a crack of a branch. A shadow shifted, leaped. The women froze.
"Did you see that?" whispered Lisa. "What was that?"
There was another shadow flitting past, the sound of scampering along the jungle floor, of paws grasping branches and leaping among the trees.
Melinda raised the flare gun. There, above her, to the left, the branches shaking with the weight of some beastly silhouette. She fired. The flare dazzled outward, a brilliant red trail racing up into the dim light of the foliage shadowed woods. The flare burst against the canopy. Birds fluttered, shrieked, a general commotion erupted, and a half-dozen shapes dashed away.
"Let's get the hell out of here," Melinda said, loading the second cartridge into the gun.
They pulled Dale to his feet, and he staggered forward with them. He seemed to be regaining strength, leaning less heavily on the women, speaking in a clearer tone.
"I don't think you're going the right way," he managed. "I think we need to go more that direction." He pointed to the right, away from where they were headed, into a mass of vine and tree trunk.
"Dale, you've been unconscious. We think we're headed in the right direction."
"You don't know what you're talking about!" he shouted. His breathing was labored, his eyes blood red. His hand was swollen to twice its normal size and throbbed with a pulse of its own. He straightened. "I'm telling you, the resort is this way."
"No, no Dale, it's the way we're going."
"How can you tell, Melinda?" said Lisa. "Maybe Dale's right."
"Five minutes ago he didn't know where he was, how can he be right?"
"Dale has a great sense of direction. He never gets lost."
"He's sick, he has a fever."
"But I still know where I'm going," he insisted.
Melinda looked helplessly at the two of them. "I don't want to go alone --"
"Then come with us."
"It's the wrong way, Dale!"
"How do you know?" said Lisa.
Dale sighed heavily, stepped away from the women. "Look, I'll go this way. You go that way. Whoever gets to the resort first, sends help for the others. Right?" His eyes were a violent red, but he was standing straight and managing to convince them of his strength.
"I think we should stay together," said Melinda, "we don't know what's in this place with us."
"Come on, we've got daylight yet. A mile away, tops. That's twenty, maybe thirty minutes through this brush."
Melinda shook her head. "I'm going my way."
"I'm going mine," said Dale.
"Mel," began Lisa. She paused, looked at her friend. "I've got to stick with Dale."
Melinda sagged, stared at the jungle floor momentarily. She decided quickly, looked up at them, handed them the flashlight, and began backing up.
"I'm going. Good luck."
"Don't do it, Mel, stay with us."
"We'll send somebody for you," said Dale. And he and Lisa turned away, kept walking, faded into the profuse mass of vegetation that rose from the jungle floor.
Melinda squeezed between two massive tree trunks and walked through a mass of flat, broad leaves. There was a sudden howling and screeching of wild animals. She wanted to run; she wanted to cry; she wanted to scream. Melinda wasted no time, slipped from between the two tree trunks and limped in what she thought was the right direction.
Dale wiped at his face in a nervous way, ran the side of his hand against his warm perspiring forehead and kept moving through the jungle. Lisa held his hand loosely, followed closely behind. But there was something else following them. He saw a dark figure dart behind a tree trunk, then another. Holding Lisa's hand, he quickened his pace, hurrying through the ferns and ducking under vines, all the time trying to maintain his sense of direction. In ten minutes they'd be at the clearing by the huge walls outside the golf course. He'd seen the clearing on the resort tour they'd taken upon their arrival. They'd said that resort workers keep the forest back over one hundred feet from the fifty-foot high stucco resort walls; and he had noticed the footpaths around the base of the walls that could lead him to safety. If only they could get to the clearing, to those paths, yes, to the clearing . . . But where was it?
He stopped suddenly, whirled about.
He heard Lisa's voice like it was through a wall.
"Dale, what is it?"
He ignored her. Was it paranoia? His fever worsened; his vision became foggy, muddled. He waved the flashlight vaguely. There was a growl, a low, deep-throated, growl, but as he turned there was nothing but the blurred vision of vine and fern and thick tree trunks. He blinked and stared into the thickets and beyond the vines. Nothing. Nothing but jungle cast in shadowy dusk. He turned dizzily. There was another growl, then a series of vicious snarls.
He bolted into an awkward drunken run, hurrying and stumbling, rushing toward the clearing he imagined was only just beyond his sight. Lisa stumbled after him, calling his name. The beast's growls lifted into a hideous animal laughter, delighted by the playfulness of the chase. The clearing . . . where was it? It had to be near . . . perhaps just beyond the trees . . . just around this thicket--he fell down an embankment and splashed into a creek. Lisa stumbled down after him, helped him up. Standing dizzily and looking anxiously about, he whirled randomly and pointed the flashlight into the jungle foliage. They were alone. The jungle had fallen silent.
"Dale, what do we do?"
He looked up and down the creek in rapid turn. The creek should lead to the beach, shouldn't it? He began following it downstream, splashing heavily through the cool water.
After several hundred feet, he went up a choppy embankment, staggered into a dusky meadow shaded by curtains of fern and vine, and there, there in front of him, impossibly, were the remains of the hovercraft. The canopy had been torn off, the seats disemboweled, and the remains of Joe's body dismembered. He fell to his knees. Lisa shook him. "Dale, get up, get up."
Then came a tittering, husky-throated laughter from all around them. They looked up, and saw an audience of glittering eyes, delighted that their play had reached its conclusion.
Forty minutes after she had parted from Dale and Lisa, Melinda staggered through a curtain of stringy vines. She did not know where Dale and Lisa were, or whether they had made it to safety. The beasts that had been following her had given way some time ago, but now she heard a clamor behind her, above her, in the trees. She fought through the vines, her arm pounding with pain, her foot burning. There was a tittering among the trees, now, a sickening animal laughter. She turned, looked up, saw the gleam of eyes. No! She raised the flare gun and let her second, final, cartridge go. It flamed outward, exploded with brilliant red light; she didn't wait to watch, but turned hurriedly, stumbled, staggered through the undergrowth, wincing with pain as she went. She pushed through a wall of leaves and branches, and suddenly the quality of the air brightened. She stepped farther, and farther and then . . .
She tumbled from the jungle into the clearing outside the resort. The beasts began screeching and howling from the trees above her. They jumped up and down, hollered like a crowd reaching a fevered pitch at the climactic moment of a close game. She turned and looked back into the dense shadows. Among the leaves and vine she saw the glow of eyes, a small army of eyes, advancing. She turned, rushed across the clearing.
"Help!" she cried, "Help!"
There was no sign of aid along the wall's upper rim.
Howls and grunts pursued her. She staggered the last of the hundred feet, fell against the face of the great wall, and, weeping, pounded on the impassable barrier.
"Help, God help me . . ." she sobbed. She turned, fell to the ground, and watched, back against the wall, as they--those things--crept from the jungle. They were dark and squat, their bare skin covered in places with thick patches of bristling fur. They began stalking across the clearing, disguised in the purpling light, a few from one side, a few from the other. Closer, they crept closer, hissing, growling, tensing. Suddenly, floodlights poured on with a loud crack. The animals jerked, their eyes widened and then, in fits of screams and shrieks and howls, they fled. A door opened along the wall. Several men, some of them armed, surrounded Melinda, picked her up, carried her to the door.
"Are you all right?" one of them asked.
Her mind was floating in a strange delirium. She thought of the picnic, how pleasant the afternoon had been, and then, Joe, dear Joe, Joe.
The exhaustion of her struggles, the whiteness of the yard lights, made her dizzy.
They brought her into the interior gardens, shut the emergency door, and lay her on the ground. There was a man in a gray sport coat holding a black bag, a doctor she presumed; and another man, wearing safari gear, there. The doctor leaned over her, took her pulse, checked her eyes with a penlight. "We'll need to give her the vaccine, in case she's been exposed," he said, looking up at the others, "we need to get her to the infirmary, right away."
The doctor looked back down at Melinda, noticed her eyes blinking, "How are you feeling?"
She did not respond, cast a dazed stare against the doctor's gray coat. The doctor slapped lightly at her cheek. "Can you respond? Where are you injured? Are you all right?"
She stared back without reply, her foot burning and throbbing, a sense of wild stimulus shaking through her. She felt the lift of the stretcher beneath her, let her head fall back, and closed her eyes. Her fevered thoughts fell to white sheets and soft pillows, the padding of nurses' tennis shoes upon a hard floor, and cream-colored shades drawn low to dim out the tropical sunlight.
Nightfall purpled the jungle below. The man in safari gear and the doctor stood side by side on top of the fifty-foot wall.
"Do you think we got her into the infirmary in time?"
"I don't know," answered the doctor, "It all depends on how long her wounds were exposed. We'll watch her closely, and if the changes cannot be reversed, we'll have to release her to the wilderness with the others."
The man in the safari gear nodded, and grimly turned to the jungle. They stood in silence then, looking at the blackening tangles of vine and twisted bough, and listening to the rough clicking of the dry-throated night bird and the lament-like howl of one of them.
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