© Duncan Howard
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John is the first to die. To be honest, he deserved it. I suppose it comes down to how stubborn botanists can be in the face of a deeper, more ancient wisdom; something the Huli tribe understands well. Scientists ask a lot of questions but they seldom listen to other people’s advice. Their quests for the truth are self-obsessed and blinkered. The tribal elders have told us that they will proceed no further through the jungle, under any circumstances. John, our team leader, attempts to bribe them with promises of medical supplies, more metal tools and plastic buckets. It’s pathetic and they become aggressive because they can see that John is not going to change his mind. In front of us is a line of wooden poles staked out twenty paces apart with carved wooden fetishes squatting atop them. The rough wooden figures glare at us with pearlescent sea-shell eyes, challenging us to cross them.
Angoli, my oldest friend in the Huli, tells me that he and other guides cannot climb the escarpment that rises before us because it is ‘Ungata’ – Taboo. He tells me that the other side of the ridge is where the winds blow. Only spirits reside there. It is Sacred Ground. Angoli warns me that if we decide to go on our bond with the tribe will be broken. John argues, railing at them for being ignorant, they just shake their heads and disappear into the jungle without a word.
Being the anthropologist in the team I’m outraged by John’s typically western approach to indigenous people; always bloody demanding like a petulant child. We always think we know better. The white man has never managed to rid himself of that innate superiority he feels over those ‘less advanced’ than him.
“We’re making a mistake, John,” I tell him. “That is sacred ground over the ridge and we should respect their wishes.”
“If you want to go with them then leave,” John says. He’s stepped right up to me and used his height and build to intimidate me. I hate that because it works. I’m no jock, like him. “This is unknown territory,” he continues, “and I intend to do my job as team leader to create a bit of history here, so don’t give me all this liberal bullshit. We’re going over that ridge.”
In five minutes I have lost two years of fieldwork with the Huli. I could throttle that bastard. I have also lost a friend in Angoli. It is his last look of disappointment that cuts me so deeply. I am ashamed of myself. I should have left with them. God knows I should have.
No one else in the team seems to care. We have SatNav and a Sat-phone in case of emergencies, with a helicopter clearing less than five miles away, and besides, the scientists are like kids in a candy store with the tug of new species of flora and fauna ahead. They’re all babbling about naming new species after themselves and the grants they’ll receive from their universities. Avarice. As we set up our base camp I cannot get over the din of life that permeates the New Guinean jungle; the thrum of insects vibrates through the ear-drums and fantastically-coloured birds call across the canopy.
On our third day John leads the ascent to the top of the ridge with Mike the ornithologist and Natalie the entomologist, carrying enough supplies and equipment to last ten days. I stay behind with Larry the lepidopterist. He’s already found eight new species of butterfly and has cut a deal with John that they ‘smoke a section’ of jungle and bring him the casualties to study. I’m still livid with John for ruining my relationship with the Huli, so I volunteer to be the short-wave contact in base camp. It will give me time to write up my report and let my sponsors know in no uncertain terms what has transpired here.
The jungle here is so dense that we lose sight of them within twenty metres of the camp. The racket they make lasts a while longer. Five hours later, Larry and I listen on the radio to the crackly ‘whoops’ of joy as the three pause to rest at the ridge’s crest. They are entering unmarked territory, a land bereft of man where only passing satellites have given the topside a cursory glance. I can feel John’s ego swelling from here. I hate to admit that I am jealous. The adventurer in me yearns to tread on a piece of this planet where no human has ever set foot.
They descend the other side and set up camp. Mike tells us it 'feels' different over the ridge, quieter somehow. It’s two days later when we receive a panicked call from Natalie.
“What do you mean missing? I thought you said he had a fever and was hammock-bound.”
“He was,” croaks Natalie, “but when I woke this morning he’d disappeared. He’s taken all his climbing gear too.”
“Well, maybe he’s better and catching up on some work,” I said and paused. “Are you okay? You sound rough.”
“I feel like hell. I’m exhausted; I had horrific nightmares all night. My throat's on fire and I’ve stopped sweating, it’s the weirdest thing. It’s ninety percent humidity here and I’m dry as a bone. It makes no sense. Mike’s okay though, he’s out looking for John."
“Do you want us to come?” I ask. There is always that hidden urge to be the hero, to rescue a situation, and I can feel it stirring inside me. “We can bring some medical supplies?”
“Give us until tomorrow morning,” says Natalie. “We have enough antibiotics with us. We’ll update you every two hours.”
But that’s our last radio contact. Larry and I leave at dawn the next day, climbing with minimal gear. Larry’s packed food and water and I carry the medical supplies, a Sat-Nav, phone and rifle. We make the ridge in three and a half hours. We’re both drenched in sweat and take a breather before the descent. We find a rocky outcrop where we can sit without fear of being eaten alive by insects and look over the canopy of this unexplored world. What I cannot understand is the contrast between the jungle we have left and the silence of the forest below us. The lack of noise is not total, but muted, grating the senses as if we have spontaneously passed from a city to a village. The Sat-Nav tells us we are two miles from their camp as the crow flies but it’s mostly downhill. From our viewpoint we can see the endless roof of the forest below us. In the direction of the camp a group of vultures wheel. For some reason I’m glad I have the rifle.
We follow the path the others hacked out and reach their camp in a couple of hours. Mike is there hunched over a hammock and doesn’t even turn as we approach. Unbidden, my hackles rise and my stomach churns. Something isn't right.
“Hey, Mike,” says Larry as he drops his pack next to the camp fire.
“It's Nat,” he rasps, almost sobs, but still doesn't turn. “She’s delirious. I… I gave her a shot of morphine… I don’t know what to do.”
I drop my stuff and place the rifle against a tree. Larry and I move closer. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Natalie’s skin is covered in some sort of white powder. I feel her forehead with my hand; she’s burning up. When I take my hand away it is covered in the white powder. I sniff it; it smells musty. Mike giggles and shakes his head. I look at him frowning and he glances back with wild, bloodshot eyes. He looks a mess. Natalie’s breathing is ragged and what looks like tiny white fungi protrude from her eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears. Unable to stop myself I focus for too long on her eyes; too long to block out the horror of the image from my mind. Her eyelids are being pulled open by the fungus and have turned her once proud blue eyes to jelly. One word springs to mind - liquefaction. I stagger three steps away from her before vomiting. Larry is hurriedly bending down over my pack to search through the medical supplies. We do what we can but it will never be enough.
Mike beckons for us to follow him down a recently cut trail through the undergrowth. I splash my face with water and wash my mouth out before following. Mike doesn’t look good. I can see that he’s already long gone. He has the haunted look of a man who has seen the future in the corrupted face of his girlfriend. Three hundred metres west of the camp we are shown the epicentre of the vultures’ centrifuge. The tree is vast, a behemoth amongst giants with buttresses as high as a house and for a second I’m blissfully suspended from reality gazing into its verdant majesty. Mike hands me a pair of binoculars and points. Two hundred feet up, hanging from ropes, is John. He revolves slowly, bumping against the tree. His body is encased in fungi and the wind whips swirls of white powder into the air.
We tramp back to camp and clear Natalie’s airways of fungal growth. Mike tells us that she also tried to climb a tree in the morning but fell and broke her leg. He fought to get her in the hammock. She no longer recognises him. She's degenerating fast.
“Why didn’t you use the short-wave?” I ask. "We could have called a chopper in two days ago?”
“It went missing. I found it smashed this morning. It must have been Nat,” he explains, looking away.
“Okay,” I say, attempting some kind of control. “I’ll look on the Sat-Nav for a suitable clearing and call in for an immediate med-evac. We can have a chopper here in less than two hours.”
“Hang on a second,” says Mike calmly. “I need to talk to you both about what’s happening here. Grab a seat.”
Larry and I look at each other and back to Mike; we are both pouring sweat, but he’s as dry as a desert. My ears prick with dread. Something is happening. Mike leans against the tree where I dropped my pack.
“Have you ever heard of Entomopathogenic Fungus?”
“I have,” says Larry, turning as white as a sheet. “It infects insects and arachnids.”
“That’s correct, Larry. And what happens to an infected insect?” asks Mike, casually reaching over to inspect the bolt-action rifle.
“The host, usually an ant or other insect, is ‘infected’ by the spore of a fungus. The spore germinates, takes root and spreads through the body. What is most bizarre about this fungus is that the host is ‘driven’ by the fungus until it has a solitary will, and that is to climb to the highest point possible, there to die and fruit, giving it a maximum chance of the wind spreading its spores. It’s amazing really, to think a fungus can take over the mind of its host. An insect carrier can produce over a hundred million microscopic spores. It only takes a single spore landing on it to contaminate a healthy specimen. Each fungus only infects a single species of insect. We use the fungus agriculturally against locusts.”
“And now,” says Mike. “One has found us. Found mankind. I can feel it raging through me this very second. John discovered it and he infected Natalie... This is why the Huli would go no further. They somehow know that this fungus grows here. This is cursed earth. Within twenty-four hours, like John and Natalie, I will be driven to climb too, with the single aim of releasing the spores of the fungus inside me.”
“Christ, man!” yelped Larry. “Then we must have it too! We’ve got to call for help. There must be a way to treat this.”
“You fail to understand, Larry," says Mike. I hear the click of the safety catch, know with sickening inevitability what is going to happen in the next two seconds. "We can’t leave.”
“What are we going to-”
Larry’s face disappears in a cloud of blood, brain, and shattered bone. I’m on my feet sprinting through the forest before his body even crumples to the floor. I hear Mike scream in rage. I can hear him crashing through the forest after me. Gunshots echo through the forest. The first bullet shatters a branch next to me but the jungle is dense and the screaming behind me fades. Every time he fires the rifle I duck instinctively. I hear a long wail of frustration and the word ‘coward’ rings in my ears. Soon I hear nothing more than the sound of my feet and bushes whipping my legs as I head up towards the ridge…
Sat-phone in hand.
The beginning of the end.