Across the clearing, Hawker and McCarter entered the rainforest, passing through the scorched zone, where the Chollokwan fires had blackened everything bare, and reaching the lush green section just beyond it.
Wondering about his own sanity, McCarter turned to Hawker. “Tell me why we’re doing this again?”
“Those things kept coming from this direction,” Hawker said. “It became predictable. And some of them lingered here after they left the clearing. I want to know why.”
“What makes me think you already know why?”
“I don’t know anything,” Hawker insisted, examining the trunks of several trees and then moving deeper into the jungle. “But I have a theory. Their bodies are somewhat like insects, they have exoskeletons, incredibly strong but with simple joints. They took the body of the one I killed yesterday, presumably to eat it. Most predatory animals don’t do that. A lion will kill its rival but it won’t eat the body. Neither will hyenas or tigers. Sharks will—in a frenzy, when they’re biting anything that moves—but they’re also known to swim away from dead sharks found floating on the surface, as if the bodies are cursed. They even make a type of shark repellent from an enzyme found in dead sharks, because it contains a compound that triggers the flight response.”
Hawker’s eyes went from tree to tree and then to the ground looking for tracks. “But ants will eat their own,” he said. “So will roaches and all the other bugs of this world. They’ll carry the dead back to the nest and tear them apart like an old car for spare parts. So maybe these things are like insects. And if that’s the case, then maybe they follow pheromone trails. Maybe they came in and out on this path because one of them laid down a trail and the others just followed without even thinking. In and out on the same line as if it’s the only road home, like ants who’ve found their way to the sugar bowl.”
As he listened to the theory McCarter had to smile, “It takes imagination to think of it that way.”
“I suppose,” Hawker said, moving to the base of another massive tree. “But if it’s the case, then maybe we can set a trap for them—rig up some of Kaufman’s explosives and set them off when the bastards show up for their midnight snack. And if we can do that, enough of that, then maybe they’ll go off looking for easier prey.”
“There are a lot of ifs in that theory.”
“Yeah, I know,” Hawker said, examining the gray bark of yet another trunk. “The main problem is, they only show up intermittently on the scanners, but they’re not invisible, they’re just cold-blooded …” He stopped, having found what he was looking for. “And vertical.”
McCarter’s eyes took in the tree in front of Hawker. The massive Brazil nut tree had to be ten feet thick at the base. It soared upward for two hundred feet or more, its branches spreading through three layers of canopy, supporting nests and orchids and different species of animals at various levels, though nothing appeared to be living in it now. Its branches blotted out the sky in a pattern of overlapping shadows and multiple hues of chlorophyllic green.
“Vertical,” McCarter said, looking up.
Hawker nodded. “When we saw them in the cave, they were climbing around on the ceiling. And the one that took Kaufman went straight up into the canopy. Vertical. But our defenses are set up to look for the horizontal, the man on the ground. The heat sensors can’t see these things at all and the motion trackers only see them when they drop down. That’s why they seem to appear and disappear. But if we can recalibrate the motion sensors and point them up in the trees at the proper angle, then we can spot them earlier, and do something about it. But to do that we’re going to have to know how high they climb.”
McCarter examined what Hawker had found, deep gouges running up and down the trunk. The grooves began at a point five feet off the ground and tracked straight up, deep claw marks in the living wood.
“They must scurry right up,” McCarter said. “Like a repair man on a telephone pole.”
“Yeah,” Hawker agreed, “and we have to get up there and see how high. Give me a boost.”
Reluctantly, McCarter laid down his rifle and put his hands together, interlocking his fingers. As Hawker stepped into the hold, McCarter boosted him up and Hawker stretched and grabbed the lowest branch, then pulled himself up.
As soon as Hawker was in the tree, McCarter snatched up his rifle and checked the area around him. “How high are you planning to go?”
“As high as they went,” Hawker said.
McCarter glanced up as Hawker ascended through the branches. “How long do you think it’s going to take?”
“I’m not sure,” Hawker said. “Do you have an appointment or something to get to?”
“No it’s just … Never mind,” McCarter said, studying the jungle around him. He wasn’t too sure he liked the idea of being alone on the forest floor, but if the creatures used the trees to get around he certainly didn’t want to be up there either. “I knew this was a bad idea,” he mumbled to himself. “I can’t believe we’re out here.”
“We should be okay,” Hawker said. “I think they’re mostly nocturnal.”
“It’s the mostly part that worries me,” McCarter replied. “But that’s not what I’m getting at,” he added. “When I say out here, I don’t mean out here in the trees, with you, right now—although this certainly qualifies—I mean out here at all. We should have left when the Chollokwan threatened us. We should have left after the fire.”
“It would have avoided a lot of trouble,” Hawker agreed.
“Hell yes, it would’ve,” McCarter said. “I mean, what on earth were we thinking?” He shook his head. “Check that. I know exactly what we were thinking: We’re the big men, we have the guns, no one tells us what to do.”
Up in the tree Hawker laughed.
“You think I’m kidding,” McCarter said, looking up. “Well, I’m not. I’m dead serious.”
McCarter was acutely aware of the sudden wave of energy that had come over him. He felt hyper and agitated, intoxicated on a second wind like a child who’d eaten five chocolate bars.
“I’m telling you,” he continued, “we should have left that very day. We should have gone right back to that hotel, ordered up a nice bottle of scotch and hit the spa.”
Hawker chuckled. “You don’t really strike me as a spa guy.”
“You’re right,” McCarter said, realizing the flaw in his logic. “To hell with the spa—I’ll go right for the scotch. The point is, we should have left this place to the Chollokwan just like they wanted us to.”
“They did seem upset about our being here,” Hawker said. “Kind of makes me wonder why.”
McCarter was puzzled. “What do you mean?”
Hawker stopped and looked down, shrugging as if it were obvious. “I mean, why are they so pissed off at us? I get it: we shouldn’t be here, we’re desecrating the land with our presence—the plague, or whatever we are to them. But so what? This place isn’t theirs to begin with, right? It’s a Mayan temple. One that’s been abandoned for a few thousand years. So why the hell do they even care?”
“Well,” McCarter began, “it’s probably because …” He paused, rubbing his forehead and refocusing his thoughts. “I would guess that it’s based on …”
This time he stopped completely. It didn’t make any sense. There was no reason for the Chollokwan to show interest in the temple, or to care about the NRI’s trespass. The temple was a Mayan structure, that was without question, and there was no indication the Chollokwan had adopted it as something of their own, no sign within the clearing of their presence or their use of the place. They even left it for months at a time during their nomadic wanderings, something usually not done with holy sites that required violent protection from inter lopers.
In fact, the more McCarter thought about it the less sense it made. The two groups were virtual opposites. The Maya were a civilization, structured and rigid—even here, in what was presumably one of their earliest incarnations. They built things and changed things. They changed the face of nature around them. They cut down the forest and civilized it.
Like all builders, the Maya painted themselves in the foreground, their temples, their cities and the stelae they carved; all of which was meant to remind the world of who they were and what they’d done. They were keenly aware of the passing of time and very intent on preserving their own place within it.
But the Chollokwan were diametrically opposite. They remained in the background, part of the fabric of nature itself, like the jaguar and the trees and the ants. They lived only in the moment, unchanged and isolated. Though they touched nature in some small ways, they did little to change it. As the saying goes, they left nothing but footprints.
“No,” Hawker said. “But they do.”
“Yes,” McCarter agreed. “They most certainly do.”
While McCarter considered the thought, he watched Hawker resume his climb, struggling to reach the point at which the animals stopped their own ascent. Hawker was at least fifty feet above and almost completely obscured by the foliage when he paused. “Nice,” he said, using a tone that clearly meant the opposite.
Try as he might, McCarter couldn’t see the object of Hawker’s concern. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s something up here,” Hawker announced, a certain flavor of distaste in his voice.
“What kind of something? A creature something?”
“No,” Hawker said. “It looks like a nest. It’s mostly dried mud and leaves.”
“Well, shouldn’t there be nests up there?” McCarter asked. “I mean, a lot of animals—”
“There’s a hand sticking out of it.”
McCarter’s face scrunched up. “Ah, yes,” he said. “That’s not good.”
“Watch out,” Hawker said. “I’m going to see if I can knock it down.”
McCarter stepped away from the base of the tree, to a spot where he could see better. Hawker was fifty feet above, kicking at an oval-shaped formation of dried mud. The nest was attached to the tree in the Y angle between the main trunk and a large branch. McCarter couldn’t see the hand, but the cocoon was large enough that it might have encased a man.
As Hawker kicked at it, mud began to flake off and crack. McCarter stepped back farther to avoid the debris that was raining down. After a half-dozen shots, the entire thing broke free and went tumbling earthward, hitting the ground with a loud crunch.
While Hawker continued his investigation in the tree, McCarter moved to the fallen cocoon. With a stick, he began to pry away the caked mud, and before long he could see the man’s face and his upper torso. He recognized the clothing as the same fatigues Kaufman’s men had worn. He pried another large chunk from the man’s chest and then stopped. He thought he’d seen the man’s arm move.
He blinked and stared, careful not to interfere. And then it moved again. A slight move, like the man was signaling.