"It's the same old story that it's always been," Dr. Elaine Wicks said. "The farmers and ranchers keep slashing and burning their way into the forest. When they encounter the local tribes, they drive them off, sometimes by force. There are supposed to be laws in place to protect them, but the local governments are less than eager to enforce them. If you could put a word in with your superiors…"
"I'll pass your concerns on to them," the man known as Joseph Knight said, "but I can't guarantee that they'll take action. I'm only here to assess the historical significance of the find."
"Of course. That's what UNESCO needs to be concerned with," Dr. Wicks said bitterly. "Protecting the ruins. Those have world significance, don't they?"
"The United Nations is, of course, concerned with the human rights of the indigenous inhabitants," Knight replied. "But that doesn't fall under my jurisdiction. I can promise, however, that your concerns will be passed on to the relevant authorities."
"That's all I ask," Dr. Wicks said. "The Yashiwa are a fascinating tribe, and it would be a crime if their culture and heritage were destroyed so that Americans can get fat on hamburgers…"
"I prefer tacos," Knight said. "If you'd excuse me, ma'am?"
He nodded respectfully to the doctor and walked out of his trailer into the stifling heat of the Amazon rainforest. His thin shirt clung to his body, and the, chirruping sounds of insects and brightly colored birds surrounded him like a kaleidoscope of sound. The camp was a small one: several tents, a latrine, and a trailer with computers, satellite uplink, and a gasoline-powered generator augmented by solar panels. The structures were arranged in a loose semi-circle at the base of a massive temple: hundreds of meters tall, made of hand-cut stone, covered in crumbling reliefs and tangled masses of vines. Thirteen archaeologists and anthropologists had come to this place to study the so called "Yashiwa Pyramid," already being hailed as one of the biggest archeological finds of the century.
Mister Knight, and a few other members of the team, were here for a different reason.
He saw James Zhao wave to him, and nodded to the young Chinese-American man, before jogging over next to his colleague. "Can you confirm?" he asked.
"Not yet," Zhao said grimly, "I'm still trying to figure out what's going on here."
"Damn," Knight sighed. "Have you managed to slow down the progress?"
"I've convinced the teams that we need to catalog and study the exterior in-depth before we even think about entering the structure," Zhao said, "but it's only a matter of time before one of them slips their leash and tries to open up one of those doors. I can't exactly tell them not to open up King Tut's tomb, can I?"
"Do your best," Knight said. "Seriously. Try hard. The Council was adamant on this point: whatever's inside here, it caused half of their oracles to have a foaming fit when the discovery was announced. We cannot let this place get opened until we figure out what's inside. If someone does, and something bad happens… well, the last thing I want to do is to have to blame the Yashiwa for the massacre of a bunch of students. The 'murderous marauding savages,' thing doesn't really go over well, these days. Besides, they seem like nice people."
"Speak of the Devil," Zhao sighed. On the other side of the camp, a slight, rangy man with leathery, caramel-colored skin was walking towards them. He carried an ornately decorated blowgun-cum-spear-cum-walking stick in one hand, and his shirtless body was covered in ornate, interlocking tattoos. Out of respect for the newcomers, the man had traded in his traditional garments of woven plant fibers for a pair of brightly colored shorts. He had also traded in his traditional hand-woven sandals for a pair of leather Birkenstocks: that had less to do with respect, and more to do with comfort. Yashiwa shoes were notoriously uncomfortable.
"Mister Tashika," Knight said, inclining his head respectfully. "It is good to see you again."
"And you, Mister Knight," the man said. His English was tinged with a low, guttural accent: the Yashiwa language was largely glottal. "Your studies go well?"
"They do indeed. We've been studying the bas-reliefs on the walls of the pyramid," Knight said. "They're fascinating. Do you know anything about them?"
Tashika laughed out loud and shook his head. "I wish I could tell you that this was an ancient holy site to my people, and maybe even quote you some ancient story passed down from mother to daughter for countless generations… but the truth is, I don't know shit. The Yashiwa never came here often. There's no river here, the soil is bad, and the hunting poor."
"Which is the interesting thing, to me," Knight mused. "People don't often build huge buildings out in the middle of nowhere. Buildings this big usually get built where there's some kind of natural resource to draw upon. A river for trade or fishing. Fertile ground for farming. High ground, for defense and isolation. Not to mention that you don't often find temples without ancillary buildings around them…"
"Secondary," Knight clarified. "Things like homes for the priests, or farms to feed them, or to house craftsmen or merchants. Those almost always pop up around religious centers like temples. It's not often that you see a single building like this out in the middle of the jungle."
"Then maybe this isn't a temple?" Tashika suggested.
Knight paused for a moment, carefully choosing his next words before going on: "There's really nothing else it can be," he said, trying to keep his voice calm: Tashika was treading dangerously close to the truth here. "A building this big, what can it be?"
"I do not know," Tashika said. "But…" he laughed nervously and rubbed the back of his head. "Shit. This is going to make me sound like some ignorant tribal…"
"You're anything but ignorant, Tashika. Just go on and tell me."
"All right," the Yashiwa man said, sighing. "Look. Our village has this… this old woman. Crazy old crone. We call her the Great Mother. They say that she can see the future. It's all ancient legends and myths, but it's part of our culture, you understand?"
"Yeah," Knight said. "Shamans and wise women are universal." He vaguely remembered meeting the old woman when he and the UNESCO team had made their introductions to the local Yashiwa tribes. He remembered a withered old woman with one arm, leaning heavily on a stick, glaring angrily at the interlopers into her village. He also remembered Zhao telling him that the woman's EVE signature was showing distinct tendencies towards extrasensory perceptive abilities…
"It's all bullshit, but… well, the Great Mother's insisting that we move to our winter grounds early this year. That's a thirty mile journey through the jungle. We usually don't make that journey until a few months later in the year, but… she's insisting that disaster's going to befall us if we remain here, and she's got my father so riled up that he's agreed to move the tribe early this year." Tashika laughed nervously, hiding his teeth with one hand. "It's all tribalist bullshit, but the older folks are taking it seriously. So it looks like I won't be able to help you guys out any more."
"That's a shame," Knight said, and meant it. Tashika had been a treasure: a Yashiwa man, raised in the culture of the tribes, but raised in the city, and college educated, to boot. He had been invaluable in smoothing out negotiations between the UNESCO team and the Yashiwa, and Knight was certain that he was going to miss the young man. "Maybe when you come back to your summer grounds, you and I can meet up again."
"If you are still here," Tashika agreed. "It may be that you find out all you need to know about this place before then, and you will go home."
"Perhaps," Knight agreed.
"I'll go let the others know," Tashika said. "Thank you for your help… and for your respect, Mister Knight. Good day. Mister Zhao."
"Tashika," Zhao said, extending his hand in friendship. "Good luck. I'm going to miss you."
"And I you, Mister Zhao."
The young man inclined his head respectfully to Knight, then walked away to say his goodbyes to his friends on the rest of the UNESCO research team. Knight shook his head, brow furrowed in worry. "Jimmy? Why does an old proverb about rats and sinking ships come to mind?"
"I was thinking the exact same thing," Zhao admitted.
Knight awoke slowly, to find Zhao leaning over his cot. The young man's face was drawn with worry.
"Mister Knight," Zhao said. "I think it's happened."
"What's going on?" Knight asked, suddenly alert.
"Timothy and Jonas are missing. And one of the temple doors is open."
"Damn," Knight growled. "I thought I had at least another week before one of those kids tried something stupid…"
"I don't think it's their fault. You'd better come see."
Knight understood the moment that he came out of his tent. It wasn't hard to miss the knocked-over tent on the edge of the camp, guylines snapped, steel poles bent in two. One of the nylon walls had been shredded, as if by some massive claw. There was a dark blotch on the ground that looked a lot like blood.
"Who else knows?" Knight asked.
"Two other researchers. Lin and Tamaki. I think that's it."
"All right," Knight said coldly. "You talk to them. Get them to keep quiet. Tell them it's a bear or something, and we're going after them. I'll get the gear."
Knight strode quickly across the camp to the equipment tent, where he unlocked a box of gear that he had kept sealed since arriving in South America. Inside, there were two headsets, a pair of M-4 carbines, ammunition, and a satellite phone.
He took out the rifles first, checked to make sure that the chambers were empty, and put them aside. Knight then picked up the satellite phone and dialed a number that didn't exist in any phone directory on Earth.
"Central," a soft, feminine voice said. "Report."
"Central, this is Tasker One," Knight said. "Authentication Code Victor Assegai Nine Two Two."
"Tasker One, Central confirms. Bringing up your casefile now… transferring you to your appropriate controller. Wait one, please."
Knight picked up one of the two headsets, checking the OCULUS rigs' batteries and doing a quick diagnostic, while Journey's "Wheel in the Sky" played over the phone. The phone picked up before the song had a chance to repeat once.
"Tasker One, this is Central Authority. Report, over."
"Central, Tasker One. I've got two missing civilians, and the temple doors have opened. I'm about to enter the structure with Tasker Two. Third Mission Priority. I am escalating to Response Level 3. If you don't hear back from us within three hours, consider it a Response Level 4 emergency. Please confirm. Over."
"Tasker One, Central confirms two missing civilians, temple doors open. Central confirms your escalation to Response Level 3. Central will escalate to Response Level Four at 0600 hours, local time. Over."
"Thank you, Central. Tasker One out." Knight hung up the satellite phone and hung the unit from his belt buckle. He picked up an empty day pack and packed in food, water, medical supplies, and a laptop computer. Zhao joined him in the tent shortly after, and Knight helped him to pack a day pack of his own.
The two men emerged from the tent, carrying their assault rifles and wearing their night vision goggles. He could see two of the researchers from the UNESCO archeology team standing by the tents. Lin raised her eyebrow in alarm, at seeing the two men dressed like special operations soldiers.
"All right," Knight said shortly. "We've got two missing personnel, possibly kidnapped. Zhao and I are going to see if we can get them back. Lin, if you don't hear back from us by 0600… sorry, 6 'o clock… take everyone, pack them into the vehicles, and drive towards town. Find the nearest American Embassy and tell them what happened."
"What did happen?" the hapless Lin exclaimed. "I don't get this at all!"
"Terrorists," Knight said grimly. "I think they kidnapped Tim and Jonas. I'm going to see if we can't find them."
"Lin," Zhao said softly. "If we don't come back, the terrorists could come after the rest of you. You need to make sure the team gets to safety. You're in charge here."
Lin hesitated to say more, then, finally, just nodded. "Be safe," she said.
"Terrorists, huh?" Zhao whispered, as the two men started jogging towards the temple.
"The catch-all explanation for all weirdass activity," Knight agreed.
Through VERITAS, the interior of the abandoned temple seemed to glow with a sickly greenish light, the patterns vaguely resembling those of blood splatters or nails being raked across stone. Greenish mist seemed to swirl around the two men, raising goosebumps on their bare arms. The image of a flayed skull raced towards Knight, lipless mouth open in a wordless scream, then vanished into the darkness.
"Bad things happened in here," Zhao whispered.
"Very bad," Knight agreed. It took a lot of emotional and spiritual violence for EVE signals to linger as deeply as these did. There had been murder done in this place… and worse.
"Knight," Zhao said softly. He gestured to a spot on the ground that had a brighter VERITAS signature than the others. Knight dropped to one knee and ran his hand over the pool of brightly shining white light. His fingertips came away sticky.
He put his fingertips to his nose and smelled blood.
"It's fresh," he said. "Couldn't have been shed more than a few minutes ago. I think we're catching up to them."
It was then that Knight heard the moaning.
It was very soft, and very low, no louder than a kitten's cry, but it was low and guttural, and tinged with a nasty wet sound. It was coming from deeper into the temple. Further into the darkness.
"… you know." Zhao quipped. "It's at this point in all the horror movies that I always started yelling at the girl not to go into the dark scary temple. Just go home. Who cares what's in there…"
"Yeah," Knight agreed. "But…"
He raised the rifle to his shoulder and continued to walk down the dark, mildewy hallways. Closer to the sound.
The light was dim. It was the color of fireflies. Thousands of them. It flickered and glowed dimly, up ahead in the dark.
Knight stepped into the central chamber, and he felt his gorge rise. The thing in the center was a mass of… matter… about knee high. It was spongy, laced with tiny holes about the width of a pencil. Thousands of small, glowing maggots writhed and burrowed their way through the mass, their tiny bodies inching forward bit by bit, slowly but surely.
The thing on the top of the mass wasn't Jonas. Not any more. Its eyes were frozen open in terror, its mouth wide open in shock. One of the maggots was eating its way out of his lower lip, as three more burrowed their way into his left eye. His hand was outstretched towards Knight. The skin was slowly dripping off it, like a melting candle.
Knight reached out with his weapon and gently poked at Jonas's hand. It indented slightly under the touch, leaving behind an impression of his rifle's muzzle. Like wax.
"Soap," Zhao whispered. "They're turning into soap…"
"Goddamn," Knight whispered. He studied the mass a little closer. There, huddled up next to Jonas, his arm and torso melting into the other man's was Timothy.
"All right," Knight said. "We're out of here. Seal the door, get the UNESCO team out of here. Call in STRIKE. This is way above our…"
"Sir?" a soft, female voice said behind them. "Mister Knight?"
Knight spun around, rifle raised, to find Lin standing behind him. "Mister Knight," Lin said. "I left Tamaki in charge. He's getting everyone ready to move, but I thought you could use the help— OH MY G—"
Zhao grabbed the young Chinese woman before she could scream, slapped his gloved hand over her mouth and held her down while she struggled. Something moved inside the glowing chamber, and Knight spun around to see…
Maggots. Glowing ones. Thousands of them, bursting from the mass of soapy-waxy material that had once been Jonas and Tim. They crawled over the damp stone, across the ancient bas-reliefs and over the mold and slime, and they were racing towards him in a glowing tide, terrifyingly fast, and Knight turned to Lin and Zhao and screamed for them to run even as his feet turned towards the exit and he bolted for his life…
He heard Zhao scream as the things caught up to him and Lin, heard Lin start to shriek a moment later. Then he felt his ankles give way, and he collapsed to the floor, banging his chin hard against the stone and seeing stars.
Knight spun around, rifle raised. The glowing green tide was wrapped around his ankles, dragging him towards that mass of soap and wax and horror in the center of the chamber. Lin and Zhao were already in it, already starting to melt, already starting to have those horrid green maggots crawl in and out of what had once been flesh and was now closer to soft cheese.
His left arm was already crawling with the maggots. He had to drop his rifle to pull off his daypack and unzip it. He grabbed the laptop computer and held it to his chest tightly. His eyes were gone, already eaten by those crawling worms. He had to find the power switch by feel. Hold it down for five seconds with the computer's screen closed.
He was already dead when the bomb exploded.
"… holy shit," Fox said softly. "Holy fucking shit."
What had once been an ornate stone temple was now a crater in the ground. Three hours had passed since Central had awoken Strike Team Broken Dagger and apportated them into the South American jungle. Now, as the twelve members of the Strike Team advanced towards what should have been an ancient archeological site, all they could see was a wide crater, filled with glassy rubble, in the middle of the rainforest.
"Ever seen something like this before, Jackal?" she asked her XO, as the rest of the team split up to search for survivors.
"Once," Jackal admitted. "In Cornwall."
"Fucking Cornwall," Fox agreed.
"Ma'am?" Arsegike said, over the comms. "I think I found something."
"On my way," Fox said. She got back to her feet and jogged over to where the other soldier was looking down at something in the tall grass.
It was a pair of OCULUS headsets, glowing softly, their visual components and visors melted and burned, but their recorders intact. The two items were laying on a patch of grass, in which a complex geometric form had been burned, reducing the plantlife to white ash.
"Emergency Dump," Jackal said. "Someone hit the panic button."
"Bag it," Fox said. "I'll report this in."
Arsegike pulled an evidence bag from his thigh pocket and gingerly picked up the two black boxes, dropping them into the mylar container and sealing it with double-sided tape. His OCULUS visor would record the location and the time of discovery, but he jotted down a quick note on the outside of the bag in permanent marker nonetheless.
"So what was this?" Jackal asked. "A failed mission… or a successful one?"
Fox didn't have an answer for him. She still couldn't decide how to answer that twelve hours later, when the helicopters came to take them home.