Something happened 65 million years ago, and I need your help to stop it! - Chap 2
The subway car almost fell over as the swarm passed by. I crawled to the edge to see where it was going. I could still see the people running away in the distance. I couldn’t even imagine how confused they must have been. They had just reached the jungle, but they wouldn’t get far. The swarm was too quick. It kicked up dust all around us, making it even harder to breathe.
We stayed on the roof until everything was still. The swarm had run inside the jungle and most likely caught up with the passengers.
“How did Kira know?” I asked.
“You think she knew this was the day?” Jiang said.
“Maybe they found some additional clues,” I said. “But I’m not sure why she would come alone if they knew all along.”
We couldn’t figure it out. Everything was silent now. We stood up. This was the first time we could take it all in without distractions. The savannah wasn’t so much a savannah as a large valley. The jungle-covered hills around us sparkled like emeralds in the sunlight.
“It looks so young,” I said. “The earth looks young.”
“Actually,” Rodney said, catching his breath, “Earth is still billions of years–“
“I know,” I said, “but can’t you sense it? A world without humans, a world without civilization. Think about it, right now we are the most intelligent beings on the planet!”
As I said, my gaze landed on the ominous black mountain on the horizon. Its organic spires moved slightly left to right.
“What are we going to do with the bodies?” Jiang asked. “Do you think we should bury them?”
She meant Kira and a few others who hadn’t survived.
“There’s no time for that,” I said. “We need to find somewhere to take shelter as soon as possible.”
“I guess you’re right,” Jiang said with sadness in her voice. “Poor Kira. She was a good person. Do you think we’re to blame?”
“What?” I said. “No, of course not!”
We climbed down and grabbed our bags. I wasn’t used to holding a gun, especially not a submachine gun, but when I pulled it out of my bag it gave me a kind of confidence I otherwise would never have been able to muster in this place. Jiang took her gun as well.
“Stick close to us, Rodney,” Jiang said. “Don’t wander off.”
“We need to take advantage of our mammalian flexibility,” I said. “Our best shot is either up in the trees or in the hills.”
“The hills,” Rodney said. “We need a cave!”
“He’s right,” Jiang said. “We can’t make a fire outside. The oxygen levels are so high that even wet plants might burn.”
We headed toward the largest hill. I stopped for a moment and looked back at the subway car. It didn’t belong here. Seeing it standing in the middle of this valley, at the end of the Cretaceous Period, felt surreal. How did it end up here? So far, none of our questions had been answered. More had just been added.
As soon as we stepped into the jungle and began walking up one of the first hills, we heard smaller animals – perhaps our own prehistoric cousins – hiding away in the bushes. An awful smell came from somewhere nearby. Smaller avian animals – perhaps a form of Rahonavis, given their raised sickle claw – flew in the direction of the smell. When we arrived at its source, we saw that it came from a recently deceased Alamosaurus. It was gigantic, approximately thirty meters between its long tail and neck. The birds circled the corpse and insects and arthropods the size of rats crawled all over it. Seeing the bugs made my sweaty skin crawl.
“Are you okay?!” Rodney said, smiling as if he didn’t realize the danger we were in. “You look pale.”
“I-I’m okay,” I said. “It’s just so freaking humid here.”
“Look at those,” Jiang said and pointed at a large group of centipedes crawling in and out of the corpse. “They’re white, just like the strange dinosaurs within the swarm and – yes – there’s something black on them as well. Do you think–”
“That black stuff,” I said. “Yes, it’s the same. It looks like some kind of parasitic fungus. Could that be it?”
“Doesn’t explain the lack of pigment, but yes.”
We heard something large move around nearby.
“Let’s move on,” I said. “This carcass will attract larger animals sooner or later. I don’t want to be here when they come.”
As we walked further into the jungle, climbing the hill, we continued our conversation about the black substance.
“I have a crazy idea,” Jiang said.
“Well,” I said, “given what we have been through I don’t think crazy is synonymous with unbelievable anymore.”
“I’m sure you’re familiar with it already,” she said. “There’s a fungus in the tropics, an insect-pathogenic fungus. I’ve forgotten its name now, but it basically takes control over their hosts. They infect ants. You heard about it?”
“Ophiocordyceps unilateralis!” Rodney said while looking around himself in the utter fascination of everything he lay his eyes on. As he continued, it sounded as if he was quoting a lexicon: “Infected hosts leave their nests among the trees for the forest floor where the temperature and humidity are fit for fungal growth.”
“I think I read about it somewhere,” I said.
“The infected ants use their mandibles to attach themselves to a major vein on the underside of a leaf,” Rodney said, “where the ant stays after its death.”
“What if this fungus is some prehistoric relative to that species?” Jiang said. “Taking control over their hosts. It could explain the odd behavior we saw earlier.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “That doesn’t explain the anachronisms, the dinosaurs that should already be extinct. There was a freaking Stegosaurus among them. And, again, why were they white?”
“The last part could be a symptom,” Jiang said. “But yeah, you’re right. Dinosaurs from the past and mammals from the future. Nothing makes any goddamn sense.”
Larger animals – such as the Tyrannosaurus rex – wouldn’t be a good climber, so we chose to ascend the steepest part of the hill to avoid falling prey to them. The trees grew a bit sparser, which helped against the humidity, but it also revealed the scorching sun above us. We stopped for a moment, sat down against a cliff, and drank from the water we had brought with us. The view over the valley was breathtaking. We could see the subway car, far away from us now. The remaining windows reflected the sunlight.
“Something is moving down there,” Jiang said and went through her bag to find her binoculars. “Can you see it?”
I could see two large figures next to the subway car.
“Quetzalcoatlus,” Jiang said, looking through her binoculars. “My God, there’s two of them!”
They were the largest known flying animals that ever lived. Excited, I began digging up my own binoculars from my bag. I wanted to see what they really looked like, but as soon as I lay my eyes on them through the binoculars my excitement got mixed with my dreadful feeling of something being wrong. They were both white and covered in the black fungus. One of them had stuck its head inside the subway car and dragged out one of the dead passengers. It picked it up with its enormous sharp and pointed beak. The other one picked up Kira’s body.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
They spread their giant wings – stretching more than ten meters in-between – and took off with the bodies in their beaks.
“They’re flying in the direction of the black mountain,” Jiang said.
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
“Some kind of nest?” Jiang said.
We kept watching the Quetzalcoatlus until they joined the rest of the dots circling the mountain.
“We need to get moving, find someplace to set up camp,” I said.
We stood up and continued upward.
“You were wrong,” Rodney said out of nowhere.
“About what?” I asked while I threw my bag up on a cliff and heaved myself upon it. My head was still spinning a little bit – especially when I exerted myself – and my body ached.
“There’s another intelligence here,” Rodney said.
“I was thinking the same,” Jiang said. “From what we’ve seen so far, we can assume that this fungus – or whatever it is – at least have some form av swarm intelligence. All those dinosaurs from before, moving in unison, and now these Quetzalcoatlus collecting bodies for the rest of the swarm.”
“Physarum polycephalum,” Rodney said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s my favorite slime mold,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“I don’t really have a favorite slime mold, Rodney,” I said. “Is there something special about it?“
I helped him up on the cliff. He was still hesitant to be touched, but he seemed to handle it better now.
“Well, what is it?”
“As I said, it’s a slime mold. It doesn’t have a nervous system, but it still shows signs of intelligent behavior. It can get through mazes, store nutrition efficiently, walk around traps, and balance its nutritional intake.”
“I’ve read about that,” Jiang said as she reached the top of the hill a few meters above us. “Perhaps this is some kind of super version of that species. The question is: how smart is it?”
“It’s an animal, so I still think I was right to say that we are the most intelligent beings–” I said, but was interrupted by Jiang.
“I think we should set up camp here,” she said. “It’s unlikely a larger predator will be able to reach the top of this hill. It’s a bit less humid here as well. The only issue is the fire. There’s no safe place for it here. A tiny spark might cause the entire jungle – and us too – to go up in flames.”
“Perhaps we can build an oven,” I said, “with some rocks or, preferably, clay of some sort.”
“That’s a good idea,” Jiang said. “I’m just worried about the smoke. It will draw attention.”
“You really think it’s that intelligent?” I said. “You think it could really recognize a stream of smoke as a sign of our presence?”
“We’ve been mysteriously brought back in time,” Jiang said. “We can’t take any chances here.”
“Without fire, we won’t survive for long,” I said. “I say we take the risk.”
With that said, we began setting up the tent and all the equipment we had brought with us. Not only would this be our camp, it would also be our research station. After a few hours of hard work, the sun had set behind the hills. We took a break to look at the view. The black mountain wasn’t black anymore. It sparkled with a ghostly blue light, just as if it reflected the starry sky above.
“Bioluminescence,” Jiang said. “Astonishing!”
“You can see it on the animals flying above as well,” I said. “Like gigantic fireflies. And look, at the base, can you see it?”
There was a faint bluish glow coming from inside the jungle surrounding the mountain.
“It’s everywhere,” Jiang said.
We slowly turned our eyes to the sky. It was unrecognizable. The stars, including our own sun, were positioned somewhere else in the Milky Way at this time period. Without being able to know which ones, some of the stars that we were seeing weren’t even alive anymore in our own time. What fascinated me the most, however, was the celestial bodies that looked exactly the same. It took us a while to figure it out, but we could see Jupiter slowly following its usual path around the sun and we speculated that one of the dots in the sky might have been Mars. The moon, seen as a crescent close to the horizon, was perhaps closer to Earth but it was impossible to tell with the naked eye.
“Except for a few craters here and there,” I said, “those celestial bodies are the same as they will be sixty-five million years from now. It makes you think, huh?”
“Actually,” Rodney said, “at this time Mars still has active volcanos on its surface and the rings of Saturn might not have formed yet.”
“What’s that?” Jiang said and pointed to something faint rising over the horizon.
The second she pointed it out, I felt the hair stand up in my neck. Slowly climbing up the night sky was a white dot engulfed in what looked like a green haze.
“Please tell me that isn’t what I think it is,” I said.
“It’s a comet,” she said. “But it’s impossible to tell if it’s… the one.”
“If we keep an eye on it during the following nights,” Rodney, said, “we should be able to determine if it’s headed our way.”
“But we can’t see its tail,” I said, sensing a mortal fear climbing up my spine, “doesn’t that indicate that it’s headed straight for us?”
We went to bed inside the tent. Since we hadn’t made a fire yet it was pretty cold, even in our sleeping bags. The sound of the night was different from what we were used to. There weren’t any crickets chirping, just frightening roars, grunts and an occasional nearby hissing that made my blood run cold. A lingering sense of doom from when we saw the comet made it even more difficult for me to focus my thoughts. Everything was uncomfortable. I kept thinking that I could still smell the cadaver from earlier, but I couldn’t be sure if it was that or something else, and my beard was itching so much it almost drove me insane. I wanted a haircut, a clean shave, and a warm bath.
The next day we built an oven in the ground, doing our best to divert and hide the smoke from it, and had a discussion about what we ought to eat to stay alive. I suggested we could hunt small mammals since it would have been too dangerous to hunt dinosaurs and too difficult to hunt birds, but Jiang strongly objected to that.
“Are you crazy?” she said. “Mammals?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “They’re small.”
“We don’t know which species is our earliest mammal ancestor,” she said. “What if one of the individuals we kill carries a mutation that would’ve proven necessary for humanity to evolve?”
It was difficult for me to think. I didn’t feel like myself. Before arriving here I considered myself a rather intelligent man, but now it felt like my thoughts were traveling through maple syrup. I felt slow and dull. I hadn’t adapted to the oxygen levels, not as well as Jiang and Rodney seemed to have done. I put my hands on my forehead and concentrated as hard as I could.
“O-okay,” I said. “But our trip here already happened. We found the subway car, so whatever we do here we already know that it won’t lead to humanity never evolving.”
“Maybe that’s because we decided not to eat any mammals,” Jiang said. “Let’s not challenge fate, okay?”
I closed my eyes and tried to think even harder.
“This makes my head hurt,” I said. “What were we even talking about? Oh, yeah, the food. What do you suggest we eat?
“Insects,” Jiang said. “Insects and other types of bugs.”
I felt sick just thinking about it, and even sicker when we made our first entomophagic meal in the oven. It was disgusting. We did try some fruits that we observed a group of Alamosaurus eating, but they were so bitter that it was difficult to swallow them without throwing up.
We usually stayed close to the camp. Anything else we deemed too dangerous. There were enough to study right where we were so it wasn’t really a problem from a research perspective. The view over the valley also gave us ample opportunity to study life down there without getting too close to it. We did, however, build a lookout – a small observation platform – among the canopies at the base of the hill which we used to study birds and the life on the ground beneath the trees.
In the beginning, our observations interested me a great deal even in my less than comfortable condition. We saw plenty of different species from the safety of our camp: Sonorasaurus, Hadrosaurus, Colepiocephale, Triceratops – healthy ones – and many more. We also observed different species that we hadn’t yet found any fossils from. Only on a few occasions did we see what we called the swarm of infected dinosaurs. They appeared intermittently, hunting, and then returned with their prey to the nest.
“Given their seemingly intelligent coordination,” Jiang said, more to Rodney than to me, “and the unhindered spread of the fungus, it’s a mystery why it hasn’t taken over the planet completely.”
My poor condition had rendered me pretty useless at this point, but I could still listen and understand what they said.
“The most reasonable explanation,” Rodney said, “is that it needs some portion of the environment to remain untouched. Most likely to preserve its food supply.”
“That would require an incredible capacity to think forward,” I said. “The notion of a fungus being able to do that, even in this bizarre situation, is tough to swallow.”
“I don’t know,” Jiang said. “Maybe.”
She seemed to think about something she wasn’t ready to put into words yet.
Every night we kept track of the comet to the best of our abilities. It did come closer. My fear of death increased for every measurement. And then, one night, it disappeared. It had passed us. I was immensely relieved, but my life didn’t improve by much.
We spent months doing the same routines around the camp. We collected bugs to eat, spent hours observing the valley and even more hours documenting and cataloging our findings. Jiang and Rodney did it all with the passion of true naturalists. For them, all the hardships were worth it. They made peace with the fact that this was their life now and adapted to their new circumstances in a way I never managed to do. They began gaining their weight back that they had lost while we had traveled with Balthazar, and Rodney – now a self-taught expert on surviving in the wild – even grew an impressive amount of muscles while working with his body.
I learned things about myself that I had rather not known. Why had I come to this place? I kept asking myself that question more and more. Curiosity had made me give up everything to come here, to see what no human had seen before, but while being here I came to the realization that I had been naive.
I had been ready to spend my life here – like some kind of Robinson Crusoe lost in time – but I had foolishly imagined some kind of paradisal existence. I had understood the risks involved in living among dinosaurs in their natural habitat, yes, but I had underestimated the habitat itself; the scorching sun, the unrelenting humidity, the tremendous storms, and the never-ending presence of oversized insects. Even if I had all of my strength this environment would still have taken a toll on me. My childhood dream had quickly turned out to be a nightmare. I missed my office at the university, hell, I even missed the astringent coffee from the outdated machine in the hallway. I would have given anything to read about prehistory rather than living in it, but there was no hope for us to return.
I usually kept all of these thoughts – all of these regrets – to myself, but my mood still made it obvious that I wasn’t content and during one of the thunderstorms – while the heavy rain whipped me in the face because of the strong winds – I snapped. Jiang kindly asked me to bring some samples inside the tent so they wouldn’t get ruined in the rain.
“What’s the fucking point?!” I yelled through the rain.
“What do you mean?” she asked, surprised.
“All this research!” An anxiety-inducing lightning strike nearby lit up my malnutritious face. “Just why?!” I stepped closer to Jiang so that she could hear me properly. “Who’s gonna read about our discoveries, huh? No one, that’s who! Where are you going to publish our findings?! This is insane. All our hard work will be forgotten!”
“That’s why you came here, for recognition?”
I wiped the rain out of my face.
“Of course not, it’s just that–“ I interrupted myself. She was wrong, but I couldn’t tell her why. I hadn’t come here for validation, but not because of any hunger for knowledge either. I had come here for her. I realized that now. “Forget about it!”
I picked up the samples and put them inside the tent, then I sat down and cried convulsively. Jiang sat down next to me and put her hand on my shoulder. It was a bitter-sweet touch.
“It will be alright,” she said. “It will be alright.”
I wanted to embrace her, but I wasn’t sure how she would feel about that so I just sat there shivering like a pathetic schoolboy.
“I-I want to go home!” I said between my sobs. “I’m just so, so, so tired, you know?”
“We just have to adapt,” she said. “There’s still a lot to figure out about this place. And–“ She looked at me as if she was worried about something. “I have a feeling our research might be more important than you think.”
“Is everything alright?” Rodney, who had been spending the day up inside the lookout poked his head inside the tent with one of his now somehow confident smiles. “I thought I heard yelling.”
Jiang let go of my shoulder, a bit too quickly for it to feel natural and smiled at him in a way she had never smiled at me.
“No, we’re alright,” she said. “Aren’t we, Ian?”
Everything continued as before after this night. Nothing indicated that Jiang’s intuition about everything turning out alright bore any basis in reality. The storm abated, the merciless sun returned and the routines continued just as before and my mental health kept deteriorating.
“What’s going on?!”
It was a few months later. Gunfire woke me up in the middle of the night. I stumbled out of the tent, only dressed in my underwear. Jiang and Rodney were shooting at something on the ground. Their stern faces were lit up by the fire from the submachine guns.
“Get the flashlight!” Jiang yelled.
I ran to the charging station next to the tent and grabbed one of them and shone my light on the ground. The air smelled of the pungent nitroglycerin from the guns, which somehow reminded me of civilization. They had killed a giant snake that had found its way up on the hill. It was white, partly covered with the black fungus.
“What does this mean?” I asked. “It found us?”
“I don’t know,” Jiang said. “It isn’t good.”
“But it’s dead,” I said, “it can’t return to tell–“
“If it doesn’t return,” Jiang said, “more might be sent out.”
“It’s just an animal,” I said. “I get that’s it’s clever, but it can’t possibly think strategically like–“
“Don’t touch me!” It was Rodney. “Help!”
I shone my light in his direction. My heart almost stopped when I saw what had grabbed Rodney. Jiang pointed her gun at them, but she couldn’t get a clear shot.
“Hey!” she yelled. “Let him go!”
They were just as white as the other infected animals, but they were humans. They acted swiftly, carrying Rodney down into the jungle while he yelled for our help. The black patches on their naked bodies glowed blue in the dark.
“It must have taken control over the other passengers,” I said in disbelief. “We need to get away from here!”
Jiang was having a panic attack, frantically trying to solve a profound mystery in a matter of seconds.
“He’s gone,” I said. “We need to go into hiding!”
“No, no, no,” Jiang said and leaned over with her hands on her knees. “Rodney, Rodney, Rodney.”
I went inside the tent and grabbed some more ammunition, then I picked up one of the guns and grabbed Jiang by the arm.
“Let’s go!” I was still in my underwear, but there wasn’t any time to get dressed. “We have to get the fuck out of here.”
We spent the night hiding up in the lookout. I kept my finger on the trigger, pointing the gun at the ground.
“He was our responsibility, Ian!” Jiang was beside herself. “We failed him. I should have kept my eyes on him.”
“There wasn’t anything we could have done,” I said.
“We should never have brought him here,” she said.
“He chose to come here,” I said. “He was an adult.“
“You know he had special needs, he wasn’t–“ Jiang looked down in shame for a minute, and then she looked me in the eye. “We have to save him.”
“What do you mean, save him?” I asked. “They probably took him to the nest, we can’t go there.”
“We can’t leave him behind!”
She wasn’t making any sense, which was understandable given how upset she was.
“We’ll see,” I said, trying to comfort her. “Let’s return to camp tomorrow, in daylight, and grab what we need. After that, we can talk about what to do next.” I waited for her to answer, but she remained silent. “Okay?”
“Okay!” she said defiantly.
We spent the rest of the night listening to the harrowing sounds of the jungle, unable to sleep, and at sunrise we returned to the camp. It was untouched. Fat flies circled the dead snake. It looked even larger in the sunlight. The black fungus on its body seemed to move slowly. It was still alive.
“Pack the essentials,” Jiang told me, “and grab the plastic boxes and roll up the solar panels.”
I got dressed and did as she said.
“I’ll sample some of this fungus,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. “We need to focus on surviving now.”
“Can’t you see that’s what I’m doing? I want to figure out how to kill this son of a bitch.”
“Where are we going to go?” I asked.
“The lookout,” she said with determination in her voice. “We don’t have time to set up a new camp. We’ll have to do everything from there.”
She was right. The platform was the safest place, but it was tiny and almost didn’t have enough space for two people. And it became even smaller after I had put the plastic boxes in place to collect rainwater and rolled out the solar panels. From this day on life became even tougher.
Jiang never gave up her research. She just changed its focus. Instead of relentlessly studying the flora and fauna, she was now obsessed with trying to figure out the weaknesses of the black fungus. She refused to do anything else. I had to take care of all the practical things, such as collecting bugs – a pretty easy task among the tropical canopies – and figuring out ways to cook them without starting a wildfire.
Although we lived extremely tight together, we drifted apart more and more. We only spoke if necessary. She let me do my thing and I let her do her thing. It wasn’t until now, after all this time, that I came to terms with the fact that she never loved me and that she never would. Sometimes she shared her progress with me, but it was difficult for me to understand exactly what she was doing. She spent hours each day collecting plants, fruits, roots – anything she could find – and subjected the fungus to it. This went on for months.
Nothing seemed to work. I begged her to give up, to accept that Rodney had been lost just like the other passengers and that we needed to focus on finding a permanent place to live. But she refused to give up. It wasn’t healthy. She cried herself to sleep every night. From time to time, the thought of leaving her popped into my head, but in the end, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make it without her. It wasn’t just that I was too weak, I was too scared as well. And even though we didn’t get along as well as we once did, I still cared about her… I still had feelings for her.
Over time, Jiang seemed to be getting ready to give up, but then – just a few days after she had hinted at it – she had a eureka-moment I wish had never happened. Her stubborn experimentation had yielded results. She had managed to make an anti-fungal cream out of formic acid, fruit juice, and some flower extract. It repelled the black fungus and even killed it with enough of a dosage.
“I’m going to make a lot of this,” she said. “It won’t harm us, at least I don’t think it will.”
“Why?” I asked. “What do you hope to accomplish?”
“What do you think?” she said. “We’ll cover our bodies with this, and then we’ll sneak inside the nest and save them.”
“Are you insane?” I said, horrified. “What makes you think they’re even alive? You have to let go of this obsess–“
“They might be infected right now,” she said, “but if they ingest this substance it will kill the fungus and free them.”
“No!” I said. “I refuse to listen to this nonsense!”
“Please!” she said. “Consider the alternative for a second!”
“What do you mean?”
“We are two people,” she said. “You and me. What if something happens to me? You aren’t equipped to survive here alone. It’s unlikely we will make it if it’s just the two of us. Remember, we’ll have to spend the rest of our lives here.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Our only hope for long term survival is to save the others,” she said. “If we do that we can establish our own tribe, or own society if you will. We’re human beings, Ian, and we need a pack to function.”
“I hate you,” I said.
“I hate you because you’re right.”
She smiled, but it only filled me with dread.
It took several weeks to prepare for the rescue and by the time we were ready, it had been one and a half years since we arrived in this time period. During the planning, we did some dangerous expeditions closer to the nest. The fungus covered most of the ground beneath the jungle, even climbing the trees like black creepers and lianas. We talked a lot about how to get inside without being detected and in the end we came up with a theory that the fungus might not react to our presence if we covered ourselves with it. This would, of course, put us in a completely different kind of danger, but Jiang suggested that we would only cover our clothes with it and smear our bodies with the anti-fungal cream to keep it away from our skin. To test this theory, we captured a few small mammals – side-stepping our established principles – and let them out in the infected area, both with and without protection. To our relief, the animals that we had covered in fungal-matter was left alone by the patrolling creatures.
Since we couldn’t do any reconnaissance inside the nest, we would have to improvise as soon as we entered it. I didn’t have much hope for survival, but without trying there wouldn’t be any hope at all in the long run. We did need the other people to stay alive.
Jiang made pellets of the medicine that we intended to give to survivors, if there were any. The next day, I saw her smear her own body with the cream. After that, she got dressed, put the grenade belt around her waist, and the gun over her shoulder. She gave the other gun to me.
“Get ready,” she said. “Today is the day.”
My entire body shook out of fear while I applied the anti-fungal cream on my naked skin. I had some kind of allergic reaction to it. It made my skin burn, just as if I was covered in stinging nettles.
“God,” I said. “It stings so bad.”
“It won’t kill you.”
“I’ve never been so uncomfortable in my entire life,” I said.
When I put on my clothes and felt it’s fabric pressing against my sensitive skin, I squirmed out of agony. It felt like the entire planet tried to do whatever it could to torture me, maybe to punish me for going somewhere I didn’t belong. It was a stupid feeling, I knew that, but a feeling nonetheless.
The sun was setting when we climbed down from the platform and began venturing through the jungle. The pain made it difficult to walk. Every step felt like walking through fire. It made me stiff. But I had to go on. Jiang couldn’t do this alone. When we stepped out of the jungle and into the valley, which we had to cross to get to the nest on the other side, the stars shone down on us from above.
“It’s back!” Jiang said. “Look!”
It was the comet, slowly climbing the horizon just like it had done one and a half years earlier.
“It only has an orbital period of about a year?!” I said. “But that means–“ I tried to keep my burning neck from touching my collar. “I always believed it came from beyond Jupiter, but this means it must have been an inner solar system object.“
Jiang didn’t look at it, she kept her eyes on the landscape.
“We don’t even know if it’s the Chicxulub impactor,” she said. “During this time, I would assume the sky was – is – filled with hundreds if not thousands of rocks.”
Crossing the valley in the dark, only lit by the ghostly green light from the rising comet, my feeling of doom was accompanied by a surreal sensation of inevitability, or – perhaps – fatefulness. These feelings didn’t last long until they were replaced by terror. Three large shadows were moving in on us. Their croaky grunts echoed in the night, removing all doubts.
“T-rexes!” Jiang yelled. “Run!”
They split up, trying to surround or flank us.
“Where to?!” I said. “They’re so fast.”
I couldn’t imagine us ever being able to run away from them.
“The subway car!”
It wasn’t until now that I noticed its black silhouette in the darkness, maybe a hundred meters to our right. The Tyrannosaurus rex – normal ones as far as I could see – gained on us quickly.
“Should I fire?!” I yelled.
“No,” Jiang said. ”We’re almost there.”
“We’re going to die, we’re going to die, we’re going to die,” I repeated while panting excessively.
“Don’t look at them!” Jiang said. “Don’t look back!”
The Tyrannosaurus rex closest to us was just about to reach us when we arrived at the subway car. Jiang helped me climb inside through one of the windows. I fell down on the floor, got up, and dragged Jiang inside only seconds before the Tyrannosaurus rex ran straight into the subway car and then poked it head inside, grunting with its drooling frightening jaws. We crawled to the other side and pointed our guns toward it.
“Shoot it!” Jiang yelled. “Shoot it!”
As soon as we opened fire, it retreated. More afraid of the sound than the bullets. We stood up and looked outside. They were circling the subway car, unsure of what to do.
“We’ll have to use one of the grenades,” Jiang said. “We gotta scare them away.”
“Won’t that attract the attention of the infected?”
“Hopefully, we will have enough time to get out of the area.”
Before I had any chance to answer, she pulled the pin and threw the grenade. She pushed me down on the floor, and a few seconds later the grenade went off.
“It worked,” Jiang said after looking out the window. “They’re running away.”
“But look,” I said. “I told you! Look at the nest.”
The clusters of bioluminescent Quetzalcoatlus that was circling the black mountain in the horizon, glittering in the dark, suddenly changed their direction and flew toward us.
“Shit!” Jiang said. “We have to run as fast as we can.”
It was difficult to say how long it would take the Quetzalcoatlus to arrive, but it was clear we didn’t have that much time. And so we picked up speed again like prey on the run from Mother Nature herself, fueled by the terror rushing through our minds and the adrenalin rushing through our veins. Right before we reached the jungle on the other side – entering the domain of the fungus – the gigantic pterosaurs cast their enormous shadows on us as they passed by right above us.
Our plan had worked. Nothing took notice of us as we slowly walked toward the mountain. Our boots pressed down on the shimmering slime that covered the ground, making a crunchy sound. Other than that, everything was dead silent. The darkness ahead lit up by the luminescence within the omnipresent mold, almost looked peaceful in its alien sublimity. An infected Triceratops slowly walked forward just a few meters in front of us. I held my breath. Strange, crystal-like structures shot up through the ground here and there.
“How come we haven’t found any fossils from this organism?” I asked. “It must be covering the entire planet, given how successful it seems to be.”
“It doesn’t have any bone structure or recognizable patterns,” Jiang said. “Chances are we’ve found traces of it, but not been able to identify it as anything special. And those black crystals seem to be either some kind of cartilage or sugar, which wouldn’t be likely to survive over long time periods.”
I had hoped that our visit here would have shed some light on the mysteries, but the further inside the territory we walked the more questions arose. About a kilometer ahead, we stumbled upon a biological structure inside a clearing. It was huge. Giant bones – rib bones from some large animal by the look of them – surrounded a large accumulation of pulsating white flesh. The bones held it together. On top of it, there was a giant, unblinking eye mysteriously staring at the sky.
“What is this?” I asked. “This is a structure, a living building.”
“Don’t you get it?” she said.
I was too scared to even consider what she was thinking.
“It’s an observatory,” she continued. “This magnificent organism, this fungus, it’s not just a primitive organism as you suggested before.”
“What’s your theory?” I asked as we sneaked past the giant eye.
“I think it’s sentient,” she said. “It’s intelligent.”
“It should’ve taken over the entire world by now if that’s the case,” I said, “just like humanity have done in our time. Wasn’t it you who said that one time, that it was a mystery why it hasn’t done that?”
“Maybe,” Jiang said. “I don’t know, I have an idea about that, but let’s see what else we’ll find out.”
“K-Kira?” I said.
She was standing right in front of us, completely naked and as white as a corpse. Black blotches could be seen all over her body.
“That’s not Kira,” Jiang whispered.
“She’s been infected?“ I said. “But she lost her head.”
“Not Kira,” Jiang said as she slowly backed away from her.
Someone else jumped down from a tree nearby. Also Kira. They looked exactly the same.
“What in heaven’s name is going on?” I said, fighting an impulse to itch the rashes in my face.
A third one stepped forward, then a fourth one.
“It has found us,” Jiang said.
The pale individuals in front of us all screamed at once, showing us their teeth as if they were a pack of wild animals. And then they attacked. Jiang opened fire. Two of them fell down, but two new ones appeared out of nowhere and replaced them. I fired as well, but I couldn’t tell if I hit anything.
“Run!” Jiang yelled. “Run for your life!”
She turned around and began running. I followed suit. To our left, I heard the stomping from Triceratops we had seen earlier. Our plan had failed. Every living thing – if you could call them that – in the area turned against us.
We didn’t have anywhere to run, and still, we ran. Several Quetzalcoatlus came down through the tree canopies and landed to our left, to our right or right in front of us. Jiang stopped in her tracks and opened fire at one of them. Their frightening long necks towered above us. They spread their wings in an attempt to stop us in our tracks.
“Give me one of your grenades!” I yelled.
She gave me one. I threw it at the strange, infected versions of Kira that had almost caught up with us. The animals reacted in some confusion when the grenade exploded but quickly regained their focus. I barely heard what Jiang was yelling at me, even though she stood right next to me.
“What cliff?!” I asked.
She took my hand and ran toward it.
“We have to jump!”
Twenty meters below, a river flowed in the direction of the black mountain. We didn’t have time to contemplate the decision. I tried to jump, but my anxiety didn’t allow it. Jiang didn’t let go of my hand, however, and forced me to jump with her.