The future used to be years. Now, it’s minutes – I don’t know how many.
I can already feel the erosion at the edges of my mind.
I can already hear hundreds of voices, some human, some not, calling to me from the shadows, angrily, fiercely, echoing like the roar of a distant ocean that keeps creeping closer with every wave.
I can’t hold on for long. I want to be one of those voices.
And there’s another urge in me, too – a powerful undertow, almost a hunger, but it’s still unclear.
A few weeks ago, this was just an adventure.
My friend, Tony Ackerman, called and asked, “How would you like to come with me on one of my bring-‘em-back-alive expeditions?”
“Why would I want to do that? Sleep in a tent? Fight off snakes and tse-tse flies? Hack through the underbrush with my trusty machete? In your dreams.”
Tony is – was – a zoologist. He lived in Manhattan, but most of his life was spent in remote, uncivilized, uncomfortable places, tracking down animals that only a zoologist could love.
“Jack, you’ve got me all wrong,” Tony said. “First of all, we’re not going to the jungle.”
“What do you mean, ‘we’?”
“Jack, you could actually be there when I discover a new species. A new species.”
“Why don’t you just tell me about it when you get back?”
He paused for effect, then said, “This could be the cure for your writer’s block.”
“I don’t have writer’s block.”
“So how come I haven’t seen any articles with your byline for – how long has it been?”
“I’m working on my book.”
“In your dreams.”
Tony was right. I was stuck. I wrote every day, from eight in the morning until noon, the way I always did. But suddenly, I couldn’t find my voice. When I tried to be sophisticated, I sounded cynical. When I tried to be warm, I sounded bathetic. When I tried to be analytical, I sounded cold.
I said, “The jungle is not the answer.”
He said, “I told you: we’re not talking jungle.”
“What are we talking?”
“Picture a peaceful, temperate valley in the Andes Mountains in Chile – a valley that has been isolated for centuries by sheer, icy cliffs – a pocket of life trapped in a deep, rocky gorge. Then, suddenly, the earth shifts, and an avalanche opens a door to that valley. You may have read about this, a couple of weeks ago.”
“Earthquakes? Avalanches? In that ‘peaceful, temperate valley’? Any volcanic eruptions I should know about?”
“Listen, Jack. It’ll be like a hike through the mountains. And the valley is a dream world for a zoologist. Almost untouched. Like the Garden of Eden before the Fall.”
“And some august institution is willing to finance your trip to Paradise?”
“Who? Harvard? The American Museum of Natural History? The National Geographic Society?”
“Actually – my mother.”
I groaned: “I hate rich kids.”
“If I wait until the big outfits start sending people down there – even if one of them sends me – there’ll be too many cooks spoiling the broth. I want to get there before the stampede. I have to. And I want to tell the world about what it was like to walk in forests that no human beings had seen for centuries. I want to share the excitement of finding new forms of life – new evolutionary pathways.”
“If there are any.”
“Trust me. There will be. I feel it in my bones. But I don’t have the talent to put the experience into words. You do. I’ll bring back the animals. You bring back the story.”
“What if we discover a new form of mountain lion?”
“Jack, we’re not going out there alone. We’ll have five or six guys with guns, just to protect you.”
I waffled for a while, but Tony was right. I needed something to jumpstart my writing.
So I agreed to go with him.
That was three weeks ago. Three weeks.
The voices are louder now. I can feel them pulling me toward them. And the other hunger is getting stronger, too.
I have to remember. As long as I can remember, I can be Jack.
We flew down to Santiago and switched to a chartered puddle-jumper – a shabby, single-engine propeller plane that looked like World War II surplus.
By this time, there were six of us on the expedition. Tony, who taught at Columbia University, had hired one of his graduate students, Eric Ramirez, as a second-in-command who could also serve as our interpreter. A botanist named Kruger (a friend of Tony’s from the Columbia faculty) and two local guides made up the rest of the crew.
I asked Tony when my personal bodyguard (“five or six guys with guns”) would join us, but he just laughed.
We traveled into the interior in two all-terrain vehicles that looked like miniature tanks, with wide tracks instead of tires. They seemed to be able to climb over virtually anything, until we reached the narrow entrance to the newly discovered valley. We set up a base camp on the rim of a steep cliff, where we pitched our tents. From this point on, we had to proceed on foot.
We may not have been in the Garden of Eden, but the valley was beautiful. The cold, mountain air was clean and clear. In the cloudless sky, huge birds of prey soared in great circles on currents of wind, wings outstretched, unmoving, held aloft by invisible fingers.
There were few trees at the camp site, but below us the valley was thick with vegetation. And, hopefully, with animal life.
That night, I started to write. I hadn’t brought my laptop. This was an expedition, and I thought it should be chronicled the old-fashioned way: in handwritten notebooks. (I hope to God someone finds them soon enough.)
As Tony had predicted, the words flowed easily.
He said, “I told you so. I knew this was what you needed.”
He and Kruger set up a work schedule that started with short treks into the valley, with a return to the base camp on the same day. But navigating the steep mountain pass took too long to allow for much exploration, so they began to camp for a few days down below. Tony would always take me and Eric with him, and one of the guides. On those days, Kruger would stay at the base camp with the other guide.
When Kruger went out, Eric would usually accompany him, along with the other guide. Whoever remained in camp had time to write up his notes, analyze specimens, and prepare for his next trek into the valley.
At first, Kruger seemed to hit pay dirt every time he went out. He kept finding new varieties of vegetation. As a born and bred city boy, I didn’t know one plant from another, but I tried to share his excitement.
At first, Tony was less successful. There were no immediate surprises. But it wasn’t just a question of whether he would discover something new. On our third excursion into the valley, he told me how surprised he was that we encountered so few animals.
He said, “With the range of plant life, and the moderate temperature, there should be more animals and insects here. Where the hell are they?”
“Maybe it’s that new species of mountain lion,” I said, half-seriously.
He shook his head.
“No, Jack. Not unless there’s some kind of predator that attacks everything from butterflies to frogs – to snakes, birds and field mice.”
“Maybe there’s a virus that developed here – that kills off most of them.”
He caught some grasshoppers, a speckled lizard, and a small, brown bird that looked like a sparrow. They seemed to be healthy. He dissected them, tested their tissues, and all of the fluids in them, and turned up nothing unusual, nothing deadly.
Then we found our first fresh corpse.
The voices, the shrieking voices.
A new way to live.
A new kind of death.
Don’t listen, Jack. Don’t listen.
It was a dead field mouse. Freshly dead, its dark eyes open, staring.
Tony held the tiny body in his gloved hand. He examined it with a magnifying glass.
He said, “No apparent wounds. No blood. It seems well fed. No broken bones.”
“Maybe you’ll find that virus now.”
He carefully placed the body in a sterile sac, sealed it, put it in his backpack.
A half hour later, I found the body of a tree frog, draped over a low limb, freshly dead, still moist, seemingly uninjured.
It joined the field mouse, in its own sterile sac.
We stopped looking for living animals and began searching for dead ones.
We found one more fresh “kill”: a slim, black snake, half-buried in the soil. (We had already begun to think of the dead as victims.)
At the base camp, Tony spent two days analyzing the bodies.
When he was finished, he said, “There was nothing wrong with any of them. They weren’t diseased. They weren’t injured. Their organs were completely intact. They were just dead.”
“And you don’t know why?”
“I haven’t got a clue.”
“I guess this Garden of Eden has a snake of its own.”
He nodded and said, “We’d better find it. That earthquake opened the Garden gate.”
I recognize one of the voices now. It’s louder, clearer than the others. A human voice. His voice. I can almost understand what he’s saying.
I can hear his pain. His hunger.
I can feel his pain. His hunger.
Jack is dissolving.
Not yet. Not yet.
Then we saw the leapers. That’s what Tony called them.
There were three of them, perched on the branches of a tree. They were small, dark, furry animals – maybe a foot-and-a-half long, with a tail that added another seven or eight inches to their length. At first I thought that they were monkeys, but their faces were longer, with pointed snouts and very large, intelligent eyes.
They watched us intently. They had never seen anything like us before.
Tony said, “They’re in the lemur family. Primates, but not as smart as us.”
“They’re probably saying the same thing about you and me.”
They were chattering softly to each other, standing on their hind legs. Then, incredibly, with seemingly little effort, one of them leaped to another tree, thirty or forty feet away from his companions. A moment later they joined him.
He said, “They’re not lemurs. They’re leapers. Kruger, eat your heart out. No one has seen one of these before. I’ll bet the farm on it. This one’s going to be named after me.”
“If you can catch the son-of-a-bitch.”
Tony had already snapped some photographs of the trio.
He said, “We’ll set a trap. Lemurs are omnivorous. Like us. They eat fruit, insects, small animals.”
“I don’t eat insects.”
“You eat snails. That’s worse.”
We were both excited about the find. For the moment, we forgot about the snake in the Garden of Eden.
We set the trap later that day. We put a live lizard in it.
When we went back in the morning, the lizard was still there. It wasn’t injured, or wounded. It was dead.
One of the leapers was sitting on a branch near the trap. Its huge eyes watched us curiously, fearlessly.
We set the trap again, this time with a live frog and some fruit.
When we returned to the trap the next day, the fruit was untouched. The frog was unhurt. And it was dead.
Two leapers loitered in a tree across the clearing. They chattered, preened, and watched us intently.
Tony was trying to unscramble the puzzle.
He said, “The bait is dying, the way those other animals died. And the leapers don’t seem interested in meat, or fruit.”
“You’re only assuming that they have the same diet as lemurs. They may have evolved differently here. Maybe they just eat a certain kind of leaves. Or one particular insect.”
“Maybe. So far, we haven’t seen them eat anything.”
We went back to the base camp, so Kruger could take his turn in the forest. He went out with Eric and one of the guides.
But Kruger didn’t come back on schedule. We decided that he may have lost track of time, so we waited an extra day.
In the middle of the night, we were awakened by the sound of Eric’s voice, half shouting, half moaning. He was crouched by the campfire, staring at the flames. Tony and I tried to talk to him, to calm him, but he just kept moaning wordlessly, his eyes empty and, at the same time, glazed with fear.
We carried him toward his tent and he went limp in our arms. In a moment, he was dead.
Tony examined him carefully. He was uninjured, except for some scratches from the underbrush.
Not yet, Tony. Not yet. Give me another minute. Another five minutes.
Yes, I’m hungry, too.
Soon. Very soon.
In the morning, we went into the valley to search for Kruger and the guide who was with him. We left the other guide at the base camp.
We found both of them, Kruger and the guide, unhurt, dead, in a shady grove near a fast-flowing stream of water.
We heard the chattering in the trees. We saw the dark furry bodies leaping from branch to branch. We looked up into those dark, dark eyes.
We ran back to the base camp.
In my journal, I wrote what Tony said.
“I’m sure it’s them – the leapers. They’re the predators.”
“But they’re not eating their prey.”
“Evolution is a tricky bastard. Something special happened here. Who knows why? The leaper became a different kind of predator. It feeds on the mind of its prey – absorbs the prey’s consciousness, turns it into flesh and bone and blood. And the body is left untouched.”
“That’s crazy, Tony.”
“The leaper steals your soul – drains the energy from it – and packs it away with the hundreds of other souls it has stolen. Bird souls and insect souls and lizard souls.”
He paused, and added, “What if it takes its prey’s knowledge, too? What if its mind is the sum of all the minds it feeds on?”
“Just think of it, Jack. The leapers have just discovered a new prey, a smarter prey, one that will make them smarter, too. All the things that Kruger knew – that Eric knew – that the guide knew – they know. They know about the world outside the valley. And all the fresh prey that is out here.”
He put his hand on my arm and said, “We’ve got to find a way to stop them from getting out.”
We were sitting in front of the main tent, where Tony and Kruger had set up their laboratory. Tony’s eyes suddenly looked past me at a spot high in the air. I turned and followed his line of sight.
The leapers had left the valley. A crowd of them were gathered in the trees on one side of the camp. The guide sensed danger. He clicked a cartridge into his rifle and took aim at one of them. He fired. The leaper was hurled from its perch by the impact of the bullet.
In an instant, another leaper had launched itself onto the guide’s back and clutched him with its tiny hands. The guide collapsed without a sound. The leaper looked at me and Tony.
It chattered a soothing, sultry song. And then all we could hear was that chattering, all around us, and all we could feel was the hot breath of oblivion.
I’m ready now. I’m one of you, all of you.
My voice is your voice. No more Jack. No more Tony.
We are stronger. We are smarter.
And we are free.
The gate is open.
We are hungry.
And there’s a great, big world out there, just waiting for us.
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