“I hate the rain, I hate the trees, I hate the clients...” Marianne looked over at Jasmine, “But more than anything, I hate the humidity...”
“Shouldn’t have signed up for a job in the Amazon then,” Jasmine grinned, “Besides, we’re nearly there, what’s the worst that could happen.”
“Never been this deep into the forest before,” Marianne picked the map out of her pocket and put it on the trunk, “They want to go here for some reason, and if they’re right about the location, it should only be a couple of miles away.”
“Ever wonder why a food company wants to be all the way out here?” Jasmine leaned back against the trunk and looked back at the party, “I mean, they’re not exactly intrepid adventurer’s are they?”
Marianne followed her gaze to the group of people following them, all of them wearing clothing that would have been appropriate to an exploration in the Victorian times but with no equal in the present day and age. The leader of the group, Professor Crow, looked up from her sludge filled shoes and opened her arms wide to them.
“Are we there yet?” She called
“Few more miles till we get to where you want us to be,” Marianne called back, “As for ‘are we there yet?’ You’ll have to tell me when you get there.”
“Should we make camp? It’s getting dark and we don’t want to travel when we can’t see.”
“Your call Professor, we’re on the clock here.” Jasmine yelled down, “You want to rest now, we can do that.”
“I think...” Professor Crow looked back at the others, all of them breathing heavily, “We’ll take a rest now and see what we manage tomorrow.”
“We should take more jobs like this,” Jasmine whispered to Marianne, “If all our clients wanted to take breaks on half days, we’d be rich in no time...”
“Alright,” Marianne circled her hand in the air and her people started to unload the tents.
An hour later the camp was up and Professor Crow came back into the circle around the fire.
“Finished your call?” Marianne looked over at her
“They’re very pleased with our progress,” Crow looked back at her, “We’re less than a day away and confidence is high.”
“So what is it we’re looking for?” Jasmine sat down on the other side of her.
“We sent an advance team in here some months ago, they reported finding something growing naturally that had more nutrition in a single berry than the whole of these ration packs that we’re carrying with us.”
“That’s impossible,” Marianne glanced over.
“We thought so too,” Crow nodded, “But the test results sent back from the advance team were conclusive, those plants may hold the answer to world famine if we can grow them outside of this atmosphere.”
“So what happened to the advance team?” Jasmine looked back at the group around the fire.
“We lost contact with them the day after the results were verified,” Crow looked down, “Their camp is still set up and running, and that’s how we know where they were, but we haven’t had a transmission from them in some time, that’s why we hired your people.”
“Any idea what happened to them?”
“Last visual transmission was that they were packaging up supplies for the return journey and then they were going to be heading back after leaving a beacon. The last actual transmission was a code file sent on burst transmission rather than visual, said that they’d found a much larger patch of the berries just to the south, they were going to verify it, but they couldn’t take the comms equipment that deep without risking it.”
“So we don’t know anything about it then?”
“Not a thing,” Crow shrugged, “When they went dark, there wasn’t any way of continuing to speak to them, so the only way to make contact was to send a team and we couldn’t risk sending a non-science trained team.”
“And that’s why there’s thirty of us out there when there should be ten?”
“Sadly yes, If we thought we could make it here by ourselves, we would have done.”
“Well, not to worry, we’ll be there tomorrow.”
“Thank god, I miss civilisation...”
Marianne woke to the sound of Crow tapping the outer tent pole with a stick. Marianne poked her head out and looked around to see the rest of the camp packed and ready to go, the scientists all washed and with their packs on their back.
“So we’re moving?” She looked around and yawned
“As soon as you’re able,” Crow nodded, then stood back and looked at Marianne as if she should be already out of the tent.
“Alright,” Marianne nodded, “It’s just over that ridge anyway...”
Three hours later and Jasmine looked back from the top of the ridge as the scientists panted their way up the hill, all of them looking like they’d much rather be somewhere else than there.
“You’re not going to be believe this...” She called back
“Can you see it?” Crow called
“I can see something...” Jasmine called down, “I’m not sure if it’s what you’re after.”
Marianne jogged up to the top of the ridge and looked down, below them stretched out a huge stone construction, like a labyrinth cut from single stones, each one larger than man could ever move in this terrain without the assistance of heavy machinery.
And you’d never get a crane out here...
“How has this never been seen from the air?” Marianne looked down, “It goes on for miles...”
Crow came up behind them and looked down on the stone Labyrinth. “At last,” she gasped, her lungs still working overtime from the hill climb, “We found it.”
“So what do you need to do now?” Jasmine looked at her
“Find what happened to the advance team and then get samples out of here for processing in the labs,” Crow nodded, “Once we’ve got the samples, nothing else matters.”
“Alright,” Jasmine nodded and looked to Crow, “Me and Marianne need to go down there and scout it out first, stay put and we’ll be back soon.”
The structure was larger up close than it had seemed from the ridge.
“How could they have built something like this out here...?” Jasmine looked around and pointed at the gap in the stonework above them, “Give me a lift?”
Marianne leaned against the stone and cupped her hands to lift Jasmine up on to the stone, Jasmine turned at the top and offered her a hand to come up to the stone ledge.
“Figure that’s what they’re looking for?” Jasmine turned and looked into the structure.
“Might be...” Marianne mused
The area beyond the stone ledge was covered in tents, equipment, fires that had burned down to the ground a long time since, and seats still arranged where they were when their owners had left them.
“They didn’t pack to leave...” Marianne looked down, “They just left...”
“Doesn’t make any sense.” Jasmine looked down at the camp, “You want me to go get the nerds?”
“No, not yet...” Marianne dropped down to the other side, less than three feet to the floor within. “I say we look around first and see what the score is in there...”
“Alright...” Jasmine looked down and dropped in after her, “Stay close.”
The stone square was more than a hundred feet across and the archways at both ends were covered in thick green vines with huge red berries hanging from them.
“Reckon that’s the wonderfruit?” Marianne pointed at the berries
“Not find me eating it,” Jasmine grinned, “Been out here too long to trust anything I’ve never encountered before.”
“Thick brush though...” Marianne looked at the heavy vines meshing together around the archway, each of them thicker than normal jungle creepers and with long thorns all the way around. “I’ve never seen anything like that, not even in deep jungle.”
“Want to try cutting through it?” Jasmine pulled out her machete
“No, if it can keep us out, it’ll keep out any animals as well.”
“Figure there’s something around here?”
“I figure that those scientists didn’t cut their way through this, and there’s more, listen...”
“I don’t hear anything...” Jasmine paused, “Shit...”
“Yeah...” Marianne nodded, “When was the last time you got silence out here?”
“Never,” Jasmine looked around, “Let’s get them in, get what they need and get out of here...”
The scientists took more than an hour to get down, and within another hour, had already moved in to the tents on site. Jasmine approached Crow as she set up the satellite remotes.
“Professor, do you think we could be out of here soon.” She looked around the ruins.
“We’ll only be a few days,” Crow turned back to her, “We need to run some tests to make sure the advance party weren’t getting it wrong.”
“We don’t have food enough for several days of sitting around,” Jasmine looked at the depleted supplies set.
“If this turns out to be what we think it is, then we’ve got all the food we’re ever going to need.”
“And if it doesn’t...?”
Crow looked at her as if the very possibility hadn’t ever crossed her mind. Jasmine raised her hands in surrender and smiled, “Alright, I get it...”
Later that evening, they had their answer, the scientists were all gathered around the uplink as Professor Crow showed the fruit to the camera.
“And this has proved to be everything that we hoped it would be, We’re going to be taking samples to bring back and we should be home in...” Crow looked over at Jasmine.
“About four days if we don’t stop...” Jasmine nodded
“About eight days,” Crow turned back to the camera, “We’ll have sufficient supplies with the food that we’ve collected here and we’ll take more in the coolers so we don’t run out on the way back.”
Jasmine turned back to Marianne “Reckon we should set guards?”
“Just on the front door,” Marianne looked back, “You eating any of the wonderfruit?”
“Not a chance,” Jasmine looked over at the scientists dividing up one of the thick berries, “Give me dried every day of the week...”
Jasmine waited till the end of the transmission and approached Professor Crow as she tucked into a bowl full of the diced fruit.
“So what makes it so special?” Jasmine shook her head as the professor offered her the bowl.
“It’s got a number of protein chains that you only find in animals,” She chewed on the fruit, picking out the strands from between her teeth, “and the centre of it is as close to water as anything we’ve ever encountered out there.”
“Nothing harmful in there?”
“Nothing on the bacteriological scans, and they can pick up microbes.” Crow shrugged, “Certainly nothing that would cause a problem to our antibodies.”
“Yeah, they said that about flu...” Jasmine smiled
“Well,” Crow smiled back, “If I start sneezing, let me know...”
The camp was quiet the following morning, it was past ten in the morning when Jasmine frowned.
“Look, I know they had a good night last night, but shouldn’t we be getting them up?”
“Give it till twelve,” Marianne nodded, “If they’re not up, we’ll think about it.”
Twelve came and went, Jasmine unzipped the professors tent and looked inside.
Jasmine turned back to Marianne and shrugged, “Must have gone out for a walk...”
“Out here...?” Marianne looked unconvinced
“Yeah, I...wait, listen...”
The sound of meat tearing echoed from beyond the north wall, Jasmine drew her gun and nodded to Marianne as she unslung her rifle. The north archway had been forced open at the bottom of the arch, there was a hole there easily big enough for a human to crawl through.
“Want to go in?” Jasmine nodded over to the hole.
“Nope,” Marianne grinned nervously
“Keep an eye on my ass,” Jasmine crouched down and moved forwards into the brush, the wall ending within a half metre, looking not so much like something had hacked their way through it but more as if the weeds had been pushed out of the way. The sound of tearing meat came from in front of her again and she held her gun in front of her as she walked forwards.
There was a low sound from the brush ahead of her. Then a cough, like that of a leopard. She turned to see the bush move in front of her, the white of a doctors outfit behind the bush. She levelled her gun and leaned around the bush to see Professor crow laid on her front, her body jerking slightly as both her arms wrapped around her stomach and she rolled back to look up. Jasmine’s gun went down as she saw the red juice pouring from Crow’s mouth, the chewed remnants of the fruit on the ground in front of her. Jasmine holstered the gun and helped Crow to her feet, supporting her under the shoulder as she guided her towards the hole.
“No...” Crow groaned, “Leave me...”
“Don’t talk shit,” Jasmine pulled her up again, “We’re getting you out of here...”
“I leave...” Crow gasped in pain, “And it leaves with me...”
“There...” Crow pointed backwards at the other bodies convulsing on the floor.
Jasmine looked and then stepped back as Crow convulsed again, one of the berries, whole and unchewed, bursting from her mouth to land on the floor in front of her. The berry continued to roll towards the other bodies and Jasmine drew her gun as she watched.
It’s rolling up the hill...
Jasmine looked down at Crow and saw the desperation in her eyes.
“They...they’ve got animal proteins because they are animals. They just need other animal proteins to thrive...” Crow looked up at her, “Kill me, burn this place, make sure no one comes back...”
Jasmine nodded and levelled her gun, then paused for a second.
Jasmine pulled the trigger and ran back to the opening where Marianne was waiting.
“All dead,” Jasmine looked up at her, “We need to burn this place and get out of here...”
“We burn this place and we set fire to the whole forest,” Marianne looked at her, “That’s just crazy talk, we couldn’t control it if we did that...”
“Pile all this stuff up in the middle then,” Jasmine looked at her, “Take the food we need and we’re out of here...”
At the end of the day, Jasmine looked back at the pyre still rising from the equipment they’d set on fire and then back to Marianne as she split the ration pack.
“Look, you haven’t said anything since we left camp,” Marianne looked up at Jasmine, “What happened in there?”
“I had to kill Crow...” Jasmine’s voice sounded distant to her, “The others were already gone...”
“Leopard?” Marianne nodded, “I heard it too.”
“That was Crow...” Jasmine picked up her side of the ration pack and bit into the food without enthusiasm, “She was dying, I...I had to put her out of her misery...”
“What got them?” Marianne looked back towards the plume of smoke
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you...” Jasmine shook her head. “I’m not sure I believe it...”
“She said it was the fruit that did it...”
“You’re right, I don’t believe it...” Marianne smiled. “Better not be the fruit though...”
Marianne waves the long red slice in front of Jasmine.
“Because we’re eating it...”