Blood Games – Episode 20



This week’s episode features a chapter from Blood Games, Jake Ramsey Book #3, the first book Black Brick is available as a free ebook from most ebook vendors. Here is an excerpt from the show:  

I BIT MY LIP to keep from swearing aloud as I looked at my watch. It was time to cut my losses and get out of here.

How long before Reed’s men showed up? Five minutes, maybe ten?

This place would soon be crawling with them. It was frustrating to be so close but not have the time necessary to get to them.

The silence stretched on while I considered my options and adjusted to my disappointment.

I was so close.

The door would stop my bullets. The metal my knife had scraped along the inside wall reminded me of sheet metal, something I could shoot through. The kids were probably with him, so I couldn’t risk it.

Reed had taken a foolish risk by taunting me. If it hadn’t been for that, I would have checked this room, seen it was empty, assumed the doors were closets, and gone on my way. Maybe I would have stopped if I’d have noticed the deadbolt, but I wouldn’t have given it much time, assuming it was a locked utility closet.

I bit my lip, trying to figure out if this was something he’d done on a whim, thinking I wouldn’t find him so fast or if he had another angle. Probably the latter, considering how he’d been acting for the children.

I ground my teeth as I wished for the briefest opportunity to shoot him. One moment with him in my sights and this would all be over.

This terrible game of his—how else could he think of it? —had cost too much blood. I wasn’t so far from my roots to think so much death was a trivial thing.

Even I still had some limits. If not so much in what I did but in my ways of perceiving a situation.

Dead Man’s Fear: Chapter 4

 

To: Brigadier General Katrina Roth

From: Lieutenant General Regina Adams

Log date: 00429.209-05:22:37

Re: Officer Training Protocol Adjustment

General Roth,

You are poking your nose where it does not belong. I urge you not read anything into this message.

Your camp was selected because of your reputation for discretion.

Let the pieces fall as they may. Keep me up to speed as things progress.

Lieutenant General Regina Adams

Dead Man’s Fear: Chapter 6

It was strange to have the thought of death so near. I had a moment where it felt I would fall forever, in the next I had fallen for eternity. In the one after I could only think of how little time I had. My mind ran like a mouse on a wheel, frantically looking for any way to escape. The mental activity might have been useful if I could have focused it on my problems, but it was difficult to overcome the fear. The inner war on my terror was going about as well as the outer one on my fight to survive while I struggled to figure out how to engage the flying mechanism in my boots.

I once again knocked my feet together hoping that might do something. I pushed the buttons on my watch.

“Engage flying mechanism.” My words were ripped from my mouth.

Nothing happened.

Things were getting bad.

Vegetation passed on all sides and I was forced more frequently to bring down my hands to protect my face against the undergrowth as they flashed by.

I had assumed I would die when I made contact with the ground, but now I wondered if it wasn’t more likely I’d be skewered by a branch.

When I repeated my actions there was no difference in the rate I fell. I muttered a prayer to a God I had not thought of since I was a child, if my prayer could be heard in this far off world.

I tried every combination of words I could think of, but my boots did not respond.

The vegetation was bad enough I could hardly see a foot in front of my face, yet I continued to fall without major resistance. My boots took the worst of it as I used my hands to shield my eyes in between attempts to press my watch buttons.

I took in a deep breath, gasping as if it had been my first in minutes. The thought I was seconds from death felt like a monkey on my back that jumped up and down, threatening to topple me over and bring death that much faster. It did not recede without a battle, but I managed to poke a little hole into the thought. I focused on that pinprick and tried to widen it.

I brought my feet together.

Nothing.

I pushed the buttons on my watch and felt the jolt of something kicking in, a sudden force that would have tossed me forward if I hadn’t grabbed vines that dangled in front of my face. Neither the engagement of the flying system nor my hold of the vines broke my fall. I continued to slip through the ravine, my fingers tearing leaves from the vines as I descended.

I slowly came to a halt.

Everything was quiet, something I’d missed in my rapid descent down the ravine. I licked my lips, inhaled, and was glad to be still. The vegetation was so thick I could hardly move my shoulders. There weren’t any critters nearby, but I didn’t doubt they would show up before long.

The fact I was alive sunk into my frazzled brain. I’d tried everything I could to stop it from happening, but I’d known the most likely outcome.

A sigh escaped as I tried to come to terms with my renewed chance at life. My whole body was wracked with fatigue and stress, it felt like I had been seconds from succumbing to a heart attack. The silence washed over me as I caught my breath. I was not in a hurry to return, but I was anxious to get out of the green sea of poison.

The moment slipped away. It was difficult to say how long I waited, floating in the thick vegetation but my mind started to work again, the gears ground like they were breaking off rust.

The ability to fly came from my boots, I could feel the stabilizing force emanating from below my feet, but it wasn’t a propulsionary force like I’d first thought when it had finally kicked in.

It was something different.

For lack of a better term, I thought of them as anti-grav boots because I appeared to float.

I was surprised the boots had not stopped me dead in my tracks, but it was good they had not. They appeared to have a feature that recognized my descent and were smart enough to know nothing good would happen if they stopped me sharp in midfall.

As I shifted I became more certain the levitating force came from the boots alone, my jumpsuit did not seem connected to the experience.

Jeffords hadn’t mentioned the boots once when he had spoken about our jumpsuits prior to his jump.

Another deception. He hoped I’d die before I figured it out.

I was sure he hadn’t consciously touched his watch buttons when he’d approached the edge of the ravine, it had to be something he’d done without thinking.

His slip had saved my life.

I might have stumbled onto it if given enough time, but not before I had become well acquainted with the ground or embedded into a tree. I wanted to know how close I was to the bottom, but it was too dark and overgrown to tell. I could barely see six inches past my nose.

The dark seemed brighter at the top of the ravine, but it was far away and well enough hidden I wondered if it wasn’t just my imagination.

Sweat covered my body. At least I hoped it was just that, I was afraid I bled all over.

Hoping I had not touched anything poisonous I collected my wits and began to put my mind back together. The fear was gone but the aftereffects would be with me for some time. My hands shook, my legs seemed like they were about to fall out from underneath me. Luckily, it seemed my boots kept my feet together and me upright; otherwise, I would not have stood in the air so easily.

Was it my imagination or did the jumpsuit add support?

Jeffords wasn’t kidding when he said some of us would die today. If Logan is a teenager in a man’s body, does he have the presence of mind to hop off the ravine and survive a fall?

Maybe he could—I was surprised to be alive—but I doubted it would be the case.

Logan might hate me, but I did not want him to die.

Why didn’t the boots activate the first dozen times I pressed the buttons?

I had done nothing different the time it worked.

Could Jeffords turn off my anti-grav boots?

I growled.

It was one thing to make me run laps until I dropped. It was another to order me to jump into a ravine without teaching me how to fly while also disabling my anti-grav boots until the last minute.

What if I had not tried my watch again?

After waiting until I was less likely to throttle Jeffords upon arrival, I unclenched my hands and pointed my toes down just a little, remembering how the tiniest movement had pushed Jeffords back several feet.

My action propelled me up, limber branches and other vegetation scraping against me as I went. I winced with each new brush against the plants, afraid I had been exposed to enough poison to expect another visit to the infirmary. A smile crept across my lips when I thought of the look on Dolores’ face when I returned so soon.

It became easier to breathe as the vegetation thinned out the higher I traveled. I couldn’t see much because of the dark, but it was enough to know the way above me was clear. Once the path was not as cluttered, I pointed my toes down and shot up the ravine, feeling like a superhero.

The euphoria ended as soon as I thought of Sam and Jeffords.

Several minutes later I had enough light to get my first real look at the plant life. There were vines, lots of vines. And trees that seemed a cross between mushrooms and pines. They had branches, but instead of leaves there were bulbs that were covered with spiny needles. The thin barbs stuck out as much as a foot. Some of the bulbs were three or four inches around. In between the needles there was something else. I thought at first they were leaves, but when there was more light, I decided it was a different plant that grew on top of the weird-looking mushroom trees, a moss of some sort.

All this grew in two days?

Now that I was free I was careful to avoid touching anything. I didn’t know what poisons I had picked up by contact, but I was certain it was to my advantage to avoid further exposure. I felt a little lightheaded.

Was it the poison, the aftermath of the ordeal I’d been through, or the fact I was traveling in a way I never had before?

My anxiety was less now that I could see better so I slowed my rate of climb, not caring if Jeffords noticed because I wanted to think about how I was going to act at the top. It was a risk in more ways than one because of my exposure to poison, but if it felt like I was getting sick or if there were other obvious effects, I would increase my speed.

Jeffords is John Jeffs the convicted murderer, I thought while shaking my head. The same traits that had landed him on death row would betray him here. His time would come.

Patience was my friend. 

Dead Man’s Fear: Chapter 5

 

To: Lieutenant General Regina Adams

From: Brigadier General Katrina Roth

Log date: 00429.209-05:25:45

Re: Officer Training Protocol Adjustment

General Adams,

Message received. You will be kept up to speed.

Lieutenant General Katrina Roth

Dead Man’s Fear: Chapter 3

 

My heart raced as I fell, anxiety welling up inside my considerable chest because I expected to die within moments of my ill-thought decision. Walking off a cliff with no idea how I would survive was the most dangerous thing I’d ever done, in this life or the previous.

Not to mention the most idiotic.

An unreal feeling filled my mind, but it was driven out by the rushing wind. If I survived I wouldn’t make this mistake again. I didn’t consider myself reckless, but something about this planet and my situation brought it out. Perhaps I had more testosterone running through the veins of this mammoth-sized body, causing me to take more risks.

One moment I had been on solid ground; the next, falling.

One moment I was calm, certain of my decision; the next, I knew I’d been rash.

My anger at Sam and John Jeffs fell with me.

They taunted me while fear and frustration threatened to override my brain. It was only with great effort that I turned my thoughts to my predicament. Sam had killed me once already; it would be my own fault if he caused my death again. If the time ever came I could repay him for what he had done, I certainly would but I had to live today to see that tomorrow.

The walls of the ravine sped past as the scant predawn light diminished, making me feel like I had fallen into a tunnel. The walls moved in, closing an inch or so at a time but at a sickening rate when compared to my speed of descent. Claustrophobia crept up the back of my mind and interacted in sickening harmony with the terror that wracked my soul.

I didn’t have long to figure out how to fly. Somehow, I refrained from looking down, knowing it would only make matters worse.

My hop off the edge had been instinct more than anything else. Anger had been part of it as well, but I’d known from the look on Jeffords’ face he wasn’t going to give me the information I needed. It had been an act of defiance more than obedience to his order.

If a fool like Jeffords could fly so could I. If I came back alive it would be like spitting in his face.

Quite the gamble just to stick it to somebody.

Perhaps the ability to fly had something to do with the jumpsuit but more likely it was the boots. I’d paid careful attention to Jeffords while he was suspended above the opening of the ravine, looking at his feet to puzzle out how he was doing what he did. He’d kept his feet still for the most part but at one point he’d moved backward when the toes of his boots spread out. The movement had been small, but the force had sent him backward until he’d corrected by doing the reverse, closing his toes and spreading his heels.

It was the boots. I just had to activate them. 

Within the first ten seconds of my jump I pushed the same buttons Jeffords had fiddled with minutes before he’d walked off the edge, both the block timer button and the middle one on the other side.

Nothing happened.

Panic flared but I pushed it away.

If I dwelled on Sam or John Jeffs or John Jeffords, I would fall to my death.

There was much to live for and too much to do, especially with these new revelations.

My mind felt like it moved through mud. Adrenaline might have coursed through my veins, but fear had the run of me, making it more difficult to process my thoughts than I had ever before experienced. I had trained as an attorney to think under difficult and stressful circumstances, but nothing had prepared me for this.

First chairing a murder trial as a young attorney had been nerve-wracking and stressed my upper limits but I wouldn’t be the same if I survived today.

Jeffords’ smile had grown when I jumped. I imagined him laughing as he watched me touch my watch buttons without anything happening. I curled my hands into fists but did my best to grind my mental gears as the air sped by on all sides of me. I closed my eyes, hoping it would help me focus.

Jeffords had been right about one thing. If I overcame the pressure of thinking while falling there was little I couldn’t do.

I held in my mind a memory of him pushing the buttons on his watch right as he’d been about to hop off the edge of the ravine.

Only he hadn’t.

Had he planned to teach us to fly but thought better of it? Had he decided instead to give us a demonstration that hid how it worked before pushing us from the nest? If asked he could technically say he’d taught us what to do. John Jeffs had lied with ease, I doubted John Jeffords had developed a conscience on this side.

I pressed the buttons again but didn’t stop falling.

Without realizing what I was doing I spread my hands to the side, when I noticed what I’d done it reminded me of how I must have looked when I’d jumped off the high dive as a kid.

That first landing in the pool had not been a comfortable experience.

I saw a flash of greenish-brown from the corner of my eye. At first, I thought to put my hands in my pockets to protect them from the vegetation but realized there was no way I could. Their present position helped stabilize my descent and kept me upright.

A plant went right by my face, inches from my nose.

At least I didn’t learn the hard way if it was poisonous. I swallowed. Yet.

More plants passed. The further down I went the larger they became, as if they grew better in the dark. They soon pressed in upon me.

At least I know now why it’s called a jumpsuit, I thought, looking at the protective covering on my arms and wishing it was on my hands as well.

I almost lost my balance when a plant brushed my fingers. I pressed the buttons again, but nothing happened.

It must be the boots, I thought, remembering how Jeffords had told us to take care of them, that there was more he would explain later. It had not been my imagination when he’d moved his toes and been propelled backward. 

How do I engage them?

I knocked my boots together, wondering if that might flip on the flying mechanism, but nothing happened. A bush scratched my arm, leaving marks on the suit and tearing at the fabric. Maybe I could engage the boots before hitting vegetation on my next jump.

I brought my heels together again to make sure but had the same result. My hands shook, from air or adrenaline, I could not tell. I brought them over my head and pressed the buttons on my watch, but nothing happened. I tried pressing the other buttons in a variety of combinations but remained in freefall.

Everything was dark now.

Plants whipped by on all sides, screaming when they touched my jumpsuit, tearing the fabric in some places and merely brushing against it in others. 

My whole body vibrated.

It was not just the wind rushing past that caused me to shake. It became impossible to think as I clicked my heels together and pressed my watch buttons. Fear crawled up my spine like a spider and made a home in the middle of my brain.

Then it began to lay eggs.

I could think of nothing else.

I could feel nothing more.

When something brushed my hand, I brought them close above my head, almost sending me head over heels. Luckily, I stabilized once again as I continued to plummet.

Dead Man’s Fear: Chapter 2

 

To: Brigadier General Forrest Brown

From: General Gregory Seed

Log date: 00429.209-03:18:55

Re: Planet A474-Z5673

General Brown,

Please wait while until more lurkers have landed on the planet. We will detonate once we can achieve maximum damage.

I want this one to hurt.

Please send updates.

Respectfully,

General Gregory Seed

Dead Man’s Fear: Chapter 1

Buy it here!

To: General Gregory Seed

From: Brigadier General Forrest Brown

Log date: 00429.209-03:16:17

Re: Planet A474-Z5673

General Seed,

Planet A474-Z5673 has been overrun by lurkers. My team finished its mission only an hour before the lurkers arrived and had already scuttled base and gone. My team is still in system, using inactive scanning only.

The lurkers landed two weeks ahead of their expected arrival. The plateweb is in place. With few exceptions, it appears to be holding. 

Shall we detonate?

Please advise.

Respectfully,

Brigadier General Forrest Brown

Dead Man’s Fear is out!

The sequel to Dead Man’s Game is available now, click here to get it on Amazon.

4 – Monster Country: Genizyz

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Dan25576_ebook-649x1024.jpg

It was shorter than a foot and walked on hindlegs, though that was not the only thing that reminded me of a dinosaur. Another strange thing was that it had four nostrils. When I saw that it had one claw in front that was much larger and longer than the others, my first thought was this could be the creature that harmed Erik, but that had been several miles away and it was too small.

Unless it has a big brother.

Sandy muttered a curse. My insides churned while I studied the little guy as I slowly came up to a squat.

Sharon hadn’t told us much about the lizard she was looking for, other than that it was bigger than most. I had not imagined anything larger than an iguana, this was far smaller and differently proportioned. I initially doubted the specimen in front of us was her quarry but as it moved, I started to wonder if this was just a baby.

I looked over my shoulder just to make sure a larger version was not coming at us from another way. The lizard cocked its head, blinked, and took several steps in our direction while not showing the slightest hesitation.

Sandy slowly moved up her pad of paper. I got the idea she was planning to make a drawing.

I’ll do better than that.

I pulled out my cell phone—it was useless for communication here—but worked well as a camera and I made sure to charge it when the generator was on. I opened my phone by tapping the screen, brought up my camera app, and hit the video button.

The lizard hopped, reminding me of a bird.

I held still, torn between watching and making certain I got it all on camera.

Walking on its hindlegs had certainly gotten my attention. The four nostrils made me sure we had discovered a new species. I glanced at Sandy who grinned like a kid at Christmas.

I smiled in return.

The others were going to be jealous we had made such a significant discovery while watching their gear.

It all of the sudden became worth it.

The long days trudging through the humidity, mud, and rain. The nights where I felt like I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes while trying to sleep, even after spraying myself generously with bug spray and hiding underneath a mosquito net.

Our names are going down in history. This will make Sharon mad with jealousy. I chuckled quietly, checking to make sure my camera was still going.

Then the strangest thing happened.

A baby capybara wandered out of the bushes, stumbling as if drunk. It was followed by two more. These also moved in the same manner, walking as if every step were difficult and they were in danger of toppling over. I had only seen the animals a few others times but they typically moved with an energetic bounce.

These seemed like the walking dead.

“Ah, cute.” Sandy stopped drawing and just soaked in the moment with the largest smile I had ever seen on her face.

I was no longer as enamored.

Something struck me as off. The baby capybaras should not have been walking like that. The lizard did not even look back at the other animals, never mind the fact they were more than double its size.

The capybaras were likewise not concerned about the lizard.

“They are together,” I whispered as the realization dawned on me even though it seemed impossible.

“What?” Sandy muttered from the side of her mouth.

I did not answer. It was a crazy hypothesis and even though I did not have real evidence something in my gut told me I was correct. The creatures moved as a herd. The lizard and capybaras were together.

A capybara took a step forward and almost toppled over, its ears flicking as it caught itself at the last moment.

“Hold on,” I said looking up from the camera and examining the face of the closest rodent. It had a sore on its face similar to the dead anteater. I studied the lizard but saw no sign of disease.

It was one thing for a small lizard to approach us, like a squirrel looking for a handout, but three baby capybaras? All without fear? We were too far from civilization for any of these creatures to be domesticated.

“This is not good.”

“Hush,” Sandy said as she started to draw again.

The lizard made a chittering sound and the capybaras came closer.

A chill ran down my spine.

It looked like the lizard had given them an order that they had obeyed. Impossible, sure, but that was what it looked like.

I stood, expecting my sudden move would scatter the animals but they did not react. I focused on the eyes of the capybaras.

Something was off there too.

I could tell this even though I had little experience with them. For lack of a better comparison, they reminded me of the dead anteater’s eyes.

Why?

The capybaras were past the lizard.

“Sandy, we need to move. Now.”

“It’s okay. They’re not used to seeing humans.”

“I don’t think that’s it at all. They should be afraid, yet they are fearless. Look at their eyes.”

Sandy shook her head and kept drawing.

I feigned an attack on the closest capybara, acting like I was going to kick it, but it did not even blink.

I was certain, more certain than I had been about anything. These creatures were not acting normal. The lizard looked at me, cocked its head and chittered again. The capybaras came my direction. The baby rodents were half the size of an adult but considering their abnormal behavior, it was difficult to not feel panic rising in my chest even though they were small.

I grabbed Sandy’s arm. “We have to go.”

“When was the last time you heard of a capybara attacking somebody?”

“Something is very wrong about all this.”

She shrugged off my hand.

I stepped back, uncomfortable at how close the animals had come. As I shuffled into the jungle the capybaras followed me, ignoring Sandy who unconcernedly drew the lizard, seemingly oblivious to what was happening with the rodents.

Giving up on convincing Sandy that we were in—

It did not feel like danger, at least not yet.

It felt more like a situation.

The capybaras still came after me, their feet moving as if they were liable to trip. 

I stopped backing away, turned, and walked straight, looking over my shoulder to make sure Sandy was fine before disappearing into the foliage. They moved right past without looking at her. I spun and charged to within a foot of the plodding animals but they did not react, not even when I threatened to kick them again.

Not a one blinked.

They lacked instincts. They kept coming when they should have scattered.

As I walked back into the undergrowth my heartrate increased. I suspected they would attack if they got close. After I led them into the jungle, I gave them a wide berth and returned to Sandy, hoping I might have five minutes before the bumbling creatures came back.  

Sandy was no longer on my stool. She knelt with a hand out to the lizard. It chittered, but kept its distance, dancing back and forth as if agitated. It was the first sign of nervous behavior it had displayed. 

“This is not working.” She reached into a pocket and fished out a granola bar. She opened it and broke off a small piece.

“That’s not a good idea,” I said.

“Where did you go?” Her voice was so quiet it was barely audible. She gave me a wicked grin. “I thought the capybaras had gotten you.”

I did not answer as I considered the best way to respond to the problem in front of me. Sandy did not recognize the danger and I somehow needed to convince her to be more cautious.

I am not imagining things. That lizard told the capybaras what to do, however impossible that seems.

My instincts told me I was correct. I had witnessed the capybaras act as if they had been ordered. It defied all logic, but I knew what I saw.

“Be careful around that little guy. You should leave him alone. His bite might be venomous.”

She turned to me. “Please—”

The lizard jumped. I thought it was going for the food but it bit her forearm.

Sandy screamed as the little devil bit again. She flung it off but it landed on its feet. I kicked, hoping to send it flying into the jungle, if not kill it, but it dodged and bit Sandy’s leg just above her ankle. 

I grabbed the stool. It collapsed as I grabbed one leg, holding it like a bat. I swung but the creature jumped out of the way. Cursing, I spun and lashed out with my foot, unfortunately kicking the lizard up onto Sandy’s shoulder where it bit her again.

Muttering an apology, I grabbed it by the tail and swung it into a moss-covered tree. Before it could move I hit it in the head.

I held it down with the end of my stool as I pulled out a pocketknife that I opened one-handed. I was glad I had not put it in my pack during the rain as I had with the machete. After making sure my hand was not within range of its teeth, I pressed down on its neck with my sharp blade and removed its head.

Sandy moaned, sending a shudder down my back. I had not yet acknowledged that the baby capybaras looked like miniature walking zombies, but her discomfort sent that idea home.

“Are you okay?” I asked, approaching as I wiped my knife on some leaves, closed it, and put it back in my pocket. Even with its head cut off, I did not trust the lizard to stop attacking, but a glance showed my concerns were unfounded. Its tail flicked and the severed head worked its jaw, but the little menace was dead.

Sandy shook her head. “I’ll be okay, they might be small but they sting.”

I examined them. They each had barely scratched the surface, she bled but it was not bad.

“Are you feeling woozy?” I asked going back to the lizard and turning the head with my boot to look at its mouth. “It might be poisonous.” Its little teeth were razor sharp.

“It’s going to be okay. They aren’t deep, they just sting, that’s all. They’ll soon heal.

I bit my lip and nodded, thinking it was best to not state my concerns aloud. There was no way to know that Sandy was going to be okay until sufficient time passed. I pulled out my first aid kit from my pack while wondering if the capybaras had been bitten too.

“Want me to bandage those for you?”

Get it here!

3 – Monster Country: Genizyz



We all watched as Eric, Harold, Frank, and Jim returned the way we had come. Harold and Frank walked on either side of Eric while Jim brought up the rear. I wondered if Harold had been annoyed that I had jumped to Eric’s aid, but if I had bothered him there was little I could do about it. I would do it again. I had limited medical training, but it was at the disposal of anybody who ever needed it.

Sharon gave us only a moment. “Back to it everybody. Eric is going to be fine. It’s just a scratch, nothing more.”

“Yeah, but what did that?” Max asked, looking around as if expecting to be attacked at any moment.

Eric had not pointed out where the attack had come from so I approached the most likely place and looked for tracks but found nothing. I made a slow circuit around the spot where we found Eric and similarly saw nothing of interest.

“Where was he attacked?” I asked.

“No way to know now,” Sharon said in answer to Max’s question. She then looked at me. “I did not see it. I just heard him screaming… and went to his aid.”

There had been something in her tone that made me think she had been about to say “screaming like a little boy,” but apparently, she had thought better of it.

She left. Bill followed a moment later and others in our group did as well.

“She is a cold one,” Sandy whispered from beside me.

I nodded as I watched Sharon disappear into the undergrowth.

“You should have seen her face when I found her with Eric. She was annoyed.”

“Uh, pardon me,” Sandy said, “I did not mean for my bleeding leg to get in the way of your plans.”

“Are you surprised?”

Sandy shook her head.

I dismissed the attack as a fluke thing, but I could not help wonder what had caused such a strange wound.

We spent most days traipsing through the rich undergrowth, following trails when they existed or using machetes to make our own when they did not. We had been here for weeks without serious injury. Dehydration was our most real enemy, despite all the rain. I had soon learned it was difficult to carry all the water I needed during such excursions. I had a three-liter water bladder but was always stuffing extra water bottles in the side pockets of my overstuffed pack.

Even though I had barely used my other supplies, I just could not imagine traipsing through the jungle without things like a rope, lighter, and other essential gear. My machete was momentarily stowed inside my bag because I was tired of cleaning off the rainwater, I would pull it out after the storm.

I had probably dropped ten pounds in the last two months and was on track to go another five. I did not mind the weight loss, but I was ready to go home.

Just three more weeks until I return to airconditioned labs. I never have to see the jungle again.

This internship was the last requirement before graduation. I would be working full time for Genizyz shortly after that.

It doesn’t matter where I go, I will always find people like Sharon.

While Sharon was something of an optimist, always positive that just around the corner we were going to discover a new species, she was also opportunistic, clinging to every scrap of control she could. She was desperately trying to make a name for herself by bringing back a substantial find.

Something Genizyz could exploit for profit.

I did not care as long as I graduated.

I thought it unlikely we would return with a commercially viable discovery. Sharon had high hopes that a new species of miniature moth we had found was going to secure funding to return to this section of the rainforest but I doubted it. The moth had no unique properties and was plain ugly.

We needed something that sizzled with possibility.

“I think you’re Sharon’s favorite,” Sandy said from behind. I did not need to look back to see her smirk because it was evident from her tone. She had been teasing me about Sharon more frequently because she could tell it got under my skin. I suspected she did this to subtly convey she was not interested.

“Don’t tell the others,” I said in a conspiratorial voice, “but we have been hooking up when nobody is around.” I just played along rather than let it disturb me. “She wants to make Bill jealous.”

Sandy’s laugh was muffled by the rain. “At least there is something you like about this trip. A little late-night action is enough to cheer anybody up.”

“If only,” I muttered under my breath.

I stepped in a mud puddle and sank up to my ankle.

“Great,” I said, pulling my foot out of the squelching mud while wondering what new and interesting creature I would find on my foot the next time we stopped for a break.

Maybe it will be a slug nobody has discovered. I will let Sharon claim credit and we can call it the Sharon Slug.

“You’re supposed to step over,” Sandy said lightly as she hopped across the same spot. “At least you don’t have a severe cut on your leg.”

I stamped my boot and did not respond.

We hiked until noon, the energetic and enigmatic Sharon leading the way, forcing herself to stop every so often to wait for the rest of us to catch up. Once we did she was off again after only a minute or two, practically running as if to make up for the lost time dealing with Erik’s wound.

“Is it wrong to hope a jaguar mistakes her for a deer?” I whispered to Sandy at the next stop after Sharon had left us behind again. That earned a punch that stung, but it was, however, mitigated by a smile that crept up her face.

“Say that louder,” Sandy said, “I dare you.”

I shook my head as I gulped down some water and tore the plastic from a sausage. It was sopping wet by the time I took my first bite.

We did not rest long, Sharon had long since disappeared down the path.

Come and get it guys, I thought, hoping a jaguar hunted nearby.

A normal person might have moved slower in the rain, but Sharon seemed to increase her speed.

When the rain finally let up shortly after one in the afternoon, it felt like the only dry part of me was a tiny spot on the small of my back. The rain had leaked in through my open hood and down my shirt. The poncho made my temperature increase until I felt like I was walking through a muggy greenhouse.

“Time for a break slow pokes,” Sharon said when we caught up to her. She wore a smile that betrayed an enthusiasm I doubted I would ever feel about anything.

I took off my poncho and set my pack down on a rock to keep it from getting muddy. The pack itself was water repellent but it would not have held up to the downpour we had just waded through.

My poncho was drenched and my pantlegs were caked with mud to my knee and wet to my thigh. Sandy stopped beside me and leaned her pack against my own.

“Did you ever think it would be this muddy?”

I grunted and shook off my poncho as best I could before rolling it up and strapping it to my pack. After that I swapped out my socks, putting the wet ones in a plastic bag before stuffing them back in my pack.

“It’s funny,” Sandy said from beside me while doing the same. “I never appreciated dry socks before, it’s the little things, you know?”

I nodded. “If only I did not have to put them right back into muddy boots.”

“All right, people. Ready?” Sharon was as buoyant and bouncy as ever. She had also changed into a dry top that seemed to act as a catalyst. I would have thought a fifty-year-old woman would have had less energy than me, but she gave most of us who were half her age a run for our money.

“Come on guys,” Sharon said, “pick up those feet! We are almost there.”

I held out a hand and pointed up the hill while looking at Sandy. “After you.” 

The members of our group seemed revitalized by the rest and we made better time. The sun occasionally poked through the dark canopy above but even though it was early afternoon I doubted we would make it back to our basecamp by dark.

A movement drew my eye, but when I looked it was gone, the bush shook at the creature’s passing.

“Did you see that?” Sandy asked excitedly.

“No.”

“It looked like a lizard, a large one.”

She smiled when I looked at her, letting me know she was making fun of Sharon and our current expedition.

Half an hour later we were at the top of a hill and there was a rare opening in the undergrowth that allowed me to see a green valley below.

It was majestic.

I forgot my wet clothes, my muddy shoes, and took in the vista. It was only enhanced when Sandy glanced back.

As I followed I noticed something from the corner of my eye but when I looked there was nothing there. Not even moving branches this time. 

“The rain is giving me hallucinations,” I muttered. The temperature of the valley dropped several degrees as we descended. I welcomed the change but it also felt cold.

“Step lightly,” Sandy said.

I saw what she meant a moment later.

A dead anteater lay in the path, ravaged by many different mouths. Its glassy eyed stare and torn abdomen made me look around, afraid there might really be a jaguar in the area.

Would one hunt a human? I wondered, looking into the wide expanse of green and thinking of what I had seen disappearing earlier. 

I studied the anteater and wondered when it had died. The creatures of the rainforest were good about helping along the decomposition so it could not have been long.

What’s that on its legs?

I stooped to examine the carcass. Most of what I had first taken as bites turned out to be sores. They were bleeding, oozing sores.

I stepped back from the animal and caught up to the others, hoping that whatever had made the animal sick could not transfer to humans. A few minutes later we stopped in a clearing I recognized as manmade.

We had arrived at our destination.

“Form teams of two,” Sharon said, “and spread out.”

I only payed attention with half an ear as I pulled out a dry shirt and swapped it for the wet one. A breeze touched my bare skin, making me want to shiver, but it was an urge I suppressed. The dry cotton felt good and I was glad to be half as wet as before.

“Vince,” Sharon said to me, “you stay with Sandy to watch the gear.”

I nodded. It was no surprise, Sharon didn’t think much of my field skills, but neither did I. Sandy did not look happy but managed a tiny smile to show that it was not being saddled with me that made her disgruntled.

As the others disappeared I pulled out a small folding stool from my pack and set it out, motioning for Sandy to sit. I would not have done this for anybody else.

I pulled out my poncho and plopped on the ground before she had a chance to protest. Her ears were a smidge red as she sat but she mumbled a thank you.

We waited in silence with our notebooks. Once I was certain Sharon and the others were gone, I took out a novel. Sandy started to work in her book, I knew from past experience she was either writing her thoughts or making a sketch.

She was not much of an artist but was better than me.

A rustling sound on the edge of the clearing drew our attention.

A small lizard emerged.

It cocked its head to the side and chirped. I had never seen anything like it except in a museum.

It appeared to be a living dinosaur.

Get it here!

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