So they would wait. They would wait in the clearing for Kaufman’s helicopter, until it came or until it failed to come. They would turn the camp into a stronghold and take cover in it, avoiding the dark labyrinth of the jungle with its vaporous shadows and infinite blinds. They would dig trenches and build obstacles and horde the weapons and ammunition that both parties had brought. And if their attackers came back for blood, they would have to brave a storm of overlapping fire to get it.

This had been Kaufman’s plan from the beginning, since his very first conversation with the scarred and wounded Jack Dixon. Right away he’d recognized the mistake of entering the jungle, even before he’d listened to the harrowing tale of his trek to the river. But then, Dixon needed to leave and it had always been Kaufman’s intention to stay, to deal with the problem and then find what he was looking for, unhindered by either the animals or the Chollokwan. Now, in the aftermath of the plan’s initial, failed version, the survivors of both camps would attempt a second act, one they hoped would fare better.

It fell to Verhoven to build the new fortress, and he began by throwing out most of what had already been done. He realized that if he and Hawker hadn’t breached Kaufman’s battlements, the animals or the natives soon would have. The network of foxholes was spread too thin, too far from one another to do much good. The arrangement belonged in the world Kaufman’s Eastern European mercenaries had trained for in the past decades: a modern battlefield with its mechanized terror and high explosives, a place where the distance prevented multiple positions from being wiped out by a single missile, bomb or shell.

Verhoven, on the other hand, had spent his life in close combat, in small arms battles on grassy savannahs, in jungles and on tribal lands, fighting against enemies who possessed lesser technology but usually greater numbers. That situation, like the one they were in now, required defenders to be bunched closer together, where a concentration of firepower was the best protection against being overrun.

In his plan, Verhoven would dig a new set of bunkers, shallower out of the necessity of haste, but packed tightly together, like circled wagons in the old American west. With each bunker able to add its weapons to that of its neighbor, they effectively doubled and tripled the available firepower, no matter what direction the threat approached from. It would make their small force seem like a platoon of armed men.

Kaufman’s surviving mercenary, Eric, and the traitor, Devers, were forced to do much of the digging, while Verhoven watched and critiqued. Despite their injuries, they dug for all they were worth.

A short distance away, Danielle conducted an impromptu clinic on firearms with Susan. The young woman had never fired a gun before, and showed little desire to do so now, but Verhoven’s plan and the group’s small numbers required her to at least know how to load. Over the course of an hour she learned to handle a Kalashnikov. Loading, aiming, firing, practicing the removal of jammed cartridges. Through two full clips of ammunition her shots were never accurate, but it almost didn’t matter; she would only fire if the Chollokwan were storming them, and in that case there would be too many targets to miss.

While Susan practiced, Brazos and McCarter used the expedition’s tools to enhance their situation as best they could, augmenting electronic sensors with the most primitive of defenses, cutting the steel pry bars into pieces and wedging them into the ground, with the sharpened ends pointing up and out. They added a phalanx of sticks and piles of loose rock as obstacles, forcing anything that charged them to negotiate a weaving path or to come straight down the line of fire.

While the rest of the group built their defenses, Hawker dragged Kaufman across the camp, retrieving what remained of the weapons cache. They went through crates of neatly stacked equipment and box after box of weapons and ammunition, all carried in from Kaufman’s barge downriver. As he’d boasted to Gibbs, Kaufman’s men were far better equipped than the NRI group had been, and the two battles for control had ended so quickly that much of the equipment had never made it out of storage.

Hawker inventoried the supplies, separating the useful from the merely burdensome, and they began to carry boxes back to the center of the camp. About an hour before dusk, he pulled a tarp off something, and a smile came to his face. Lying before them, nose-up on a tripod, was a massive, heavy caliber rifle with a laser scope attached to the barrel. A Barrett M107: a fifty-caliber monster, accurate at over a thousand yards, firing huge shells that traveled at two thousand miles per hour and could punch through several inches of hardened steel. Against this weapon, the bony armor of the animals would be useless.

Hawker grinned. “This is what I call a problem-solver.”

He turned to Kaufman. “How much ammunition do you have for this thing?”

“I don’t know weapons,” Kaufman replied. “That’s what I hired them for. You’d better check with Eric.”

Hawker brought the radio up to transmit the question, but a sound like paper ripping interrupted him. Behind them, a flare snaked into the sky.

The sound startled Hawker, but he knew what it meant and he spun around, firing, even before he could get his weapon on line. The rifle chattered as a shape launched itself toward him. Shells ripped into the charging beast, but the animal hit him full bore and both of them went tumbling across the ground.

A second creature followed, charging Kaufman, who bolted in the wrong direction, away from the center of camp instead of toward it.

Recognizing his mistake, Kaufman tried to bend his course back toward the heart of the clearing, but the animal cut him off, tripping him with a flick of its front claw. Kaufman went down in a cloud of dust. Before he could recover, a stabbing pain fired through his shoulder and he felt himself being yanked and swung around. He screamed.

Fifty yards away, on his hands and knees, Hawker gasped for air. He was coughing so hard that he thought he might throw up. The force of the blow had been taken on his bruised ribs, and every breath was fire. He looked around in a daze, shocked even to be alive. The animal lay a few feet away in an awkward heap. Several shots to the creature’s head had been fatal, but as it crumbled to the ground its momentum had carried into Hawker like a runaway train.

Seeing only the lanyard of his rifle, Hawker grabbed it and pulled. The weapon came snaking through the dry grass toward him. He snatched it up, racking the slide twice to make sure it wasn’t jammed, and stood. In the distance he could hear Kaufman’s agony.

Out in the trees, Kaufman’s face banged against the rugged ground as the animal dragged him. His shoulder burned and strained as if his arm was being ripped off, and then just as suddenly, he was in the forest and free.

Moving on pure adrenaline, Kaufman scrambled to his feet, only to be slammed back to the ground, dragged another dozen feet and then flipped over onto his back.

“Help me!” he screamed.

The hideous thing pinned him down, crushing the wind out of him. As he struggled to breathe, Kaufman reached for the animal’s throat. But there was no soft windpipe to crush, just bone and a thin joint where the plates slid over one another. He grabbed for its bulbous eye but the head pulled back and the weight on his chest increased.

Unable to move beneath the five-hundred-pound bulk, Kaufman squirmed in horror as the segmented tail rose up above its head and pointed toward him. He watched the spiked tips extend slowly from their sheaths and drops of some clear liquid bead up on the sharpened points.

“No!” he shouted. “No!”

The tail shook slightly, went utterly still and then shot forward.

Hawker arrived seconds later, but he found no trace of either Kaufman or the animal. He saw trampled brush and blood and then freshly cut gouges in the bark of the tree. Up above, the higher branches swayed in the breezeless air and some of the leaves were wet with smears of the animal’s oily secretions. It had taken Kaufman into the trees, like a leopard carrying off its kill.

They’d been vertical in the cave, he thought. Of course they’d be vertical in the forest.

As he scanned the foliage, the sound of gunfire reached him from across the camp. He waited for it to cease, but it continued unabated. Reluctantly, he broke into another run.

By the time he reached the center of camp, the guns had gone silent. He counted heads; everybody was present.

The others looked at him curiously. Bright red blood poured down one side of his face, flowing from the reopened gash below his eye.

“Where’s Kaufman?” Danielle asked.

“Gone,” Hawker said.


“I wouldn’t call it that.”

Danielle winced, realizing what that meant.

Hawker popped the clip out of his rifle. “Shells?”

She pointed to one of the storage boxes that he’d brought over earlier and Hawker sat down next to it and began reloading. He gazed out toward the perimeter as he shoved the cartridges into the clip. He wanted to go back for the big sniper’s rifle, but the trees were swallowing the sun whole and the weapon sat too close to the forest to chance it in the failing light. It would have to wait until morning.

If they lived that long.

That night the camp came under siege. The motion trackers picked up movement along the perimeter thirty-nine separate times. At first, the men and women from the NRI took carefully aimed shots, hoping to hit or at least scare off the intruders and conserve ammunition. But as the creatures became more aggressive, the response from the camp’s defenders grew less controlled. Before long, the night was filled with gunfire. Tracers and flares lit up the darkness while the floodlights blazed along with the guns.

“Why are they attacking now?” Susan wondered. “We’ve been here for a week. Why now?”

No one knew. Maybe it had been the continued incursions into the temple or perhaps the blood they’d shed in their own battles and the scent of the dead bodies had drawn the beasts in, but whatever the case, it was clear early on that this night would be far worse than the last. And as the animals grew accustomed to the light and noise, they began charging through the camp in ones and twos, ripping down the tents and smashing equipment, flying past the small stronghold of circled bunkers.

One of them got close enough to slash McCarter’s arm, only to be driven back by a blast from Verhoven’s shotgun. Another, tripped up by the obstacles, tumbled and landed right in front of Brazos. He fired into it from point-blank range but the thing stumbled away, still alive, at least for the moment.

The smaller creatures made faster charges; one of them leaped in the midst of its attack, landing in between the bunkers, right in the center of the circle. No one could fire at it for fear of shooting the others, but the dogs attacked, and in the melee of a vicious animal brawl, the dogs took the worst of it, especially with their nylon leashes hindering them.

Verhoven grabbed a machete, and in one great swing at the stake to which their ropes were tied, he cut them free, but the animal they fought was invulnerable to teeth and claws and the canines were dying all around it.

“Everybody down!” Hawker shouted. A quick burst from his rifle drew a piercing shriek from the beast and it leapt away, tore off into the distance and disappeared into the trees.

In between them, three of the dogs were dead, the other two bleeding and injured. With a look of pain on his face, Verhoven spoke, “We need to clean their wounds when we get a chance.”

Danielle grabbed the medi-kit, but before she could begin, the perimeter alarm went off again, announcing yet another attack.

Two hours past midnight things took a turn for the worse. It was a random occurrence, but to the overtired minds of the NRI team, it didn’t seem that way. In two separate attacks, over a span of five minutes, the animals destroyed the entire lighting system that had so aided the humans’ defense.

In the first attack, one animal crashed headlong into the post that held two of the spotlights. The pole came crashing down and the lights exploded, showering the group with incandescent sparks. Minutes later, a much larger animal got hopelessly tangled in the power cords. The beast twisted frantically, jerking and spinning like a shark caught in a net. In doing so, it yanked down another floodlight and then pulled the entire generator off its blocks, shorting out the system and plunging the clearing into sudden darkness.

With quick hands, Danielle fired off a flare. But the animal had escaped its entanglement and disappeared.

For the next three hours they had only flares to light up the night. They launched dozens of them, some triggered from the control panel, some from flare guns and still others thrown by hand into the clearing.

At some point a drum of kerosene took a hit from one of the rifles. It exploded in a burst of orange light, and the flames soon ignited the drum next to it. The fires crackled and popped as tongues of flame leapt toward the sky half hidden by the oily, black smoke.

By now the survivors were approaching the breaking point. They were exhausted beyond measure, under siege from things they could not have imagined existing just days before, bizarre animals that showed no fear of humans and their guns, nor any real reason to fear them.

In all of the night’s attacks not one of the animals had been definitively killed; they’d been driven off, and many were surely wounded, but not one had fallen in the expanse of the clearing.

Various reasons were guessed at. For one thing, most of these animals were larger than the ones they’d seen in the cave. Danielle guessed that the ones from the cave were juveniles and these had been out feeding and growing. That would make their skeletons proportionately thicker and stronger. Verhoven noted their strange shapes, guessing that the oddly slanting exteriors acted like the armor on a tank, deflecting any projectile that came in at a flat angle, like a stone skipping across the water. Still, no one could be sure.

Worst off were Devers and Eric, the surviving German mercenary. They sat in a foxhole, unarmed, with their hands and feet tied, knowing that their fate depended on the very people who had been their prisoners. A soldier who understood his situation, Eric shouted warnings when he thought it appropriate. Devers, on the other hand, spent the quiet moments between attacks either complaining or protesting his innocence. At least until Verhoven kicked him in the ribs, putting a stop to his whining for the night.

For the others, time and stress began to take their toll. Their minds were soon playing tricks on them, seeing and hearing things that weren’t there. Emotions swung wildly from one extreme to another. McCarter found himself drifting into utter despair at one moment, wishing it would just be over one way or another, then laughing at the absurdity of it all a few minutes later. The others struggled through similar states.

And then, in the last hour before dawn, things got worse.

Another sound began to make its presence known, the hollow, rhythmic voice of chanting men, hidden somewhere within the trees. The Chollokwan had returned.

Soon they could see glimpses of fire through the tangled mesh of the trees, and gray smoke began to fill the clearing. But this time the Chollokwan did not build the inferno they’d created before. They set fires only sporadically, gathering in groups, chanting and shouting in waves once again.

Their voices were coarse and threatening. Haunting the survivors, mocking them and, above all else, reminding them of something no one wanted to recall: they had been warned.

Black Rain