Grabbing his radio, McCarter signaled for help. “Danielle,” he said. “We have a problem. Bring the medical kit. Hurry!”
McCarter’s call brought a near-panic-stricken reply from Danielle. “Why? What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
“Um … ah … nothing has happened,” McCarter mumbled, realizing how his message must have sounded back at the ranch. “Nothing bad anyway. Well, not too bad. Well, actually kind of bad.” He stopped and gathered his thoughts. “Hawker and I are both okay,” he clarified. “But we’ve found someone else who might need your help.”
There was a brief delay and then Danielle replied that she was on her way.
As Hawker began his descent, McCarter examined the man more closely. He prodded and poked for a minute, but saw no more movement. He touched the man’s skin. It was cold, and McCarter realized that the man was, in fact, quite dead.
When Danielle arrived a moment later, a quick inspection told her the same thing. “This man is pretty much beyond hope, Professor.”
From the lowest branch Hawker jumped down. “Good thing he was dead,” Hawker noted. “Because that fall would have hurt like hell.”
Together, Danielle and McCarter cleared away the rest of the encasing mud, revealing two large holes bored in the man’s chest. Cutting his shirt away revealed a group of blackened bulges under his skin. They’d seen those wounds before, on the body of the Nuree man found floating in the water.
This time, however, there appeared to be movement in the swollen bulges, little displacements running like quicksilver, back and forth under the skin.
“Gas bubbles,” Danielle guessed. “I bet the movement of these bubbles tugged on the skin and caused his arm to flinch.”
McCarter was relieved. “At least I’m not crazy,” he said.
Danielle put on a pair of latex gloves and pulled out a scalpel blade.
“What are you going to do?” Hawker asked, sounding slightly nervous.
She looked up at him. “You wanted information, right?”
“Are you a surgeon or something?”
“No, but one of my degrees was in microbiology. We dissected all kinds of things.” Without waiting she sliced into one of the bubbles. It split open with a pop and a small amount of blood squirted out. Hawker stepped back.
“Just trying to stay out of your way.”
As Hawker stepped back, Danielle repositioned the man’s arm; it moved freely. “That’s strange,” she said. “Rigor mortis hasn’t set in yet.” She looked the body over. Like the man in the river, there appeared to have been little decomposition at all.
With a hypodermic needle she drew blood and deposited it in a test tube. Next she examined the damage done by the punctures; they went through a rib and deep into the chest but not out the other side. A controlled punch. Again, just like the man they’d found in the river. She began to think that Verhoven’s guess might have been correct; perhaps the Chollokwan had tied the Nuree man up as a sacrifice to the animals. But then why hadn’t he struggled against the rope? And why, after throwing him in the river, did they tie stones to his feet and a floating log to keep him from sinking? Had the Chollokwan really dragged him there and sent him down river as a warning to the Nuree?
She went in for another sample, and spotted something moving in the remnants of the blister she’d just lanced. She pulled back, watching. “That’s strange,” she said.
“There’s not a lot here that isn’t strange,” Hawker said, “so maybe you could be more specific.”
She smiled but didn’t reply; instead she used a pair of tongs to extract a slimy, gray object from the man’s chest cavity. It resembled a leech, but with two long tendrils trailing that remained attached to something in his chest.
She put the parasite down without cutting the tendrils and went for the connection point, a major blood vessel just above the man’s heart. Cutting out a section of the artery, she pulled the bloodsucker free.
The leechlike parasite wriggled impatiently against the grip of the tongs. The tendrils released the section of artery and began snaking back and forth, curling in on themselves like a pair of miniature fire hoses that had broken loose. They seemed to be searching for something.
“What is that?” McCarter asked.
“I’m guessing it’s the reproductive form of those animals,” she said.
Hawker looked even less enthusiastic than before. “A larva?”
She nodded. “Deposited as a parasite.”
Hawker’s face wrinkled in disgust. “Are you sure?”
“No,” she said. “But it seems likely. Many species reproduce through parasitic means, insects especially. Wasps in particular. They sting other insects, paralyze them and deposit their eggs. In such cases the host lives while it is consumed from the inside.”
“More insectlike traits,” McCarter noted.
Danielle pointed out the thin, veinlike tendrils, which were longer than the larva itself. “I’d bet it’s been feeding off the nutrients in his bloodstream. Its own waste gasses probably caused those bubbles.”
She held it toward Hawker for a better look.
He stepped back again. “Take it easy with that thing.”
Laughing, she turned to McCarter, who seemed more interested.
She placed the grub in a container and went back to the body. Sure enough, each dark bruiselike blister contained another larva.
“I’m going to study this thing,” Danielle said. “It might tell us something.”
Hawker looked unhappy. “I knew you were going to say that. Just don’t lose track of it, all right? I’d hate to wake up with that thing in my foxhole.”
As she placed the last of the larvae in a jar, Hawker used his radio to call Verhoven. “Bring out some of Kaufman’s C-4, a handful of fuses and some wire,” he said.
“What are you going to do with that?” Danielle asked.
“I’m going to booby-trap it,” Hawker said.
“What?” Danielle and McCarter asked the question simultaneously, shock and disgust in their voices.
“Look,” he said. “They took the bodies we buried. They’re going to get this poor son of a bitch anyway. Going to get him again, apparently. I’m going to use it to our advantage.”
There was something vile in the thought of using a dead human body as bait for a trap, but at this point survival was all that mattered, and neither Danielle or McCarter questioned him further.
While Danielle finished taking samples, Verhoven arrived with the explosives. Hawker rigged the body and then climbed the trees to do the same here. The others waited for him to come down and then they walked back to camp together.
“More than we even wanted to,” Hawker said.
McCarter nodded, thinking Hawker meant the body and the larva, and indirectly, he was right, but Hawker was concerned with more than the body of one dead soldier and the grubs that had come from it. At the top of the trees he’d seen cocoons of all sizes spread out among the branches, dozens of them, like an orchard of rotting fruit. Some appeared to be new, with dark mud and smooth sides, while others were older and dried out and still others were only broken husks, the larvae—and whatever else had been inside—long since gone.
He now understood why they’d seen no wildlife to speak of. The animals had been clearing the forest of every living thing. The proof hung rotting in the trees.