The jungle was fever-hot as Mkab plodded through the thick undergrowth, using his assault rifle to shove fronds aside. His braided hair was plastered to his face from sweat and his fatigues bunched in uncomfortable places. It had to be the worst job he’d ever taken on.
“How much further do you suppose it is, chap?” his patron asked.
Mkab rolled his eyes and thought about all the times he’d asked his father ‘are we there yet?’ back when he was a child. Professor Priyat was no kid, but he sure acted like one. Inane questions about the jungle came out of his mouth at a steady pace, followed by even more irritating ones about Mkab. Although he was no stranger to lying, Mkab wondered just how gullible the professor was.
“Not far now,” Mkab said. He pushed through a thick set of ferns to find a muddy brook. He cursed under his breath. Water was dangerous in the Laxtica. Biterfish and leeches lurked in the shallows, and the big snakes and cats liked to hide in the trees nearby. Mkab hated the jungle. He wondered, not for the first time, why he’d ever agreed to be Priyat’s guide for the job. He thought he’d promised himself last time not to take on any more jobs in the Laxtica.
Priyat seemed undaunted by the stream. He was wearing those big galoshes that came up past his knees.
“Well, chap, shall we cross?”
Mkab checked his compass, then his map. He swore again, loudly enough that the professor probably heard him.
“We have no choice.” In truth, Mkab was so hot that he had an urge to soak in the water, but he knew that it was a deathwish.
“This is so exciting,” Priyat exclaimed as he waded into the shallow water. Mkab followed, watching the trees for any sign of movement. He wasn’t worried about biterfish gnawing through thick canvas, but the big snakes were another problem. They could never eat a human whole, but that didn’t stop them from trying to suffocate you. He lifted his rifle above his head in case the professor splashed him.
They crossed the stream without any problems. Priyat took a swig from his canteen and Mkab checked for leeches on his pants. He found two, and burned them off with his lighter before he lit a cigarette.
“Care for a snack, friend?” Priyat waved half of a power bar in Mkab’s face. He accepted it with a grunt. Mkab chewed the dense, salty-sweet snack as he pondered their position on the map. The stream was small enough to go unmarked. He figured the tall ridge was ahead, but that put him far behind of schedule. It would be dark by the time he reached the target zone with Priyat. Mkab had no desire to spend a night in the jungle.
“So how much further, chap?” Priyat was reading the map over his shoulder. Mkab scowled.
“You know so much about them,” Mkab said. He spat out the last of the power bar; it was starting to taste funny. “Why don’t you tell me where they are?”
“I know exactly where they are,” Priyat replied. He sat down on a large stone and took off his galoshes, one by one. He began to massage his feet through thick, woollen socks. “Gets cramped wearing those rubber things all day. The Aaman make their home in this very jungle and stay in a small valley during the summer season. I’m assuming that’s this thing here on the map.” He pointed to a mountain. Mkab stifled his laughter. “However I can’t really read maps well and I’m not familiar with all of the dangers of the jungle. Hence why I hired you. If I could find the Aaman on my own, I would have done so.”
And we wouldn’t have a way in, to earn their trust, Mkab thought. It still annoyed him that he’d drawn the short straw for the job, but he couldn’t deny that the plan was solid. Mkab checked his watch. Sunset was approaching in another hour. It grew dark quickly in the jungle, and with the canopy so thick, it happened with little warning.
“We should be moving,” Mkab said. He watched as Priyat slowly put his boots back on. Mkab led the way through the broad, low-hanging leaves of the parapara trees that grew by the stream. Priyat followed him up the steep ridge.
“They truly are fascinating, the Aaman,” Priyat puffed as he took a short break by leaning on his walking stick. Mkab frowned. Too many small breaks were the reason why they hadn’t reached the target zone, along with the professor’s inane babble that cost him most of his breath. “I don’t know how you can contain your excitement, Mkab, because I can’t. Although I suppose that’s partly because I’ve been studying them my whole life...”
Mkab walked back down to Priyat and pointed to his watch. “Sunset comes. The jungle is not safe at night. We must find your tribe.”
Priyat nodded amiably. “Quite right, chap.” He clapped Mkab on the shoulder. “Lead on.”
Mkab led on. Up the ridge they continued, picking their way through dense fronds and bushes as the vibrant greens and reds and blues of the Laxtica deepened around them. Mkab made certain to avoid any brightly-coloured flowers, which often contained the deadly kata wasp that would paralyze its foe if disturbed, until its pheromones led the remainder of the nest to the victim for their feast. He also kept his eyes peeled and his ears sharp for any sign of larger jungle predators.
The vines grew dense near the top of the ridge, and Mkab had to take out his wide-bladed obsidian itzla to swath a path. The sweat was soaking through his khaki shirt and falling off his nose and chin in large beads. The only advantage to sundown was that the jungle would cool to a more tolerable temperature. Once the vines began to thin out, Mkab re-sheathed his itzla and allowed himself a generous helping from his water bottle.
“Thirsty work, eh, chap? I dunno what I’d do without you along.”
Mkab didn’t know either. Those spindly arms of the professor’s looked as though they’d barely be able to lift a blade.
At the top of the ridge, the trees had thinned out enough to provide a decent view of the jungle. The sun was halfway behind an impressive green hill to the west, and the sky was going from orange to blood-orange. Miles of valley stretched out to the north, below the ridge. Somewhere under that canopy of trees, the Aaman lived.
“Quite a view,” Priyat said.
“It would be better if we could see them from here.”
Priyat laughed. “That it would. But we’re close enough now, friend. We should be able to find some signs of them in the valley that will lead us right to their summer village.”
“Not tonight we won’t,” Mkab said. The north side of the ridge was practically a cliff; picking a way down in the dark was not a good idea, and finding a gentler slope would add hours of travel time, if Mkab was reading the map correctly. He was not about to brave the jungle at night, however.
Priyat shaded his eyes to watch the last sliver of sunlight plunge behind the hill. “Quite right.”
Mkab shrugged out of his backpack and began setting up his tent on the mossy ground. Priyat followed suit. As the light dwindled, the only sounds were the rustling of canvas and vinyl, and the twittering of the jungle birds. Mkab managed to set up mosquito netting and gather enough wood for a fire just as the rainforest grew dark.
A big, yellow full moon was rising up over the hills as Mkab heated up his can of beans over the fire. Priyat was dining on a mix of nuts and dried fruit. Mkab wished that he’d run into a big snake after all; they were supposed to taste similar to chicken. His mouth watered and he took a healthy swig from his canteen.
“It’s too bad we won’t find them tonight,” Priyat said. Mkab could see the moon reflected in the professor’s eyes. “It’s their midsummer hunt. My thesis advisor was privileged enough to see the event. The entire tribe participates, and boys who make their first kill become men. They light these great big effigies, and the songs they sing...”
“Sounds like it might not be a good night to find them,” Mkab said. He could only imagine what kind of blood frenzy would be upon the savages during their rituals. He wondered if the effigies would be visible from the ridge, but the jungle canopy below was as black as the blade at his belt.
“Nonsense, they hunt for jaguars. It would be thrilling to watch, even if we had to remain behind in the village.”
“It will be safer to meet them in the daylight.” Mkab pulled his beans out of the fire with a gloved hand and dug in with his spoon.
“Oh, they’re not so dangerous as all that,” Priyat insisted. “Not with me around to translate, anyhow.”
Mkab grunted and shoved in another mouthful of beans. He wasn’t so sure about the professor’s ability to communicate well with savages, regardless of how well the man knew their language. Mkab finished his beans and threw the can aside. Priyat scowled at him across the flames.
“You’re just going to throw that aside and leave it there?”
Mkab shrugged. “It’s metal. It comes out of the ground. The paper label comes from trees, and the ink comes from plants.”
“It’s not as simple as all that, chap.”
Mkab grimaced. If he calls me ‘chap’ one more time... “You can pick it up, then. I am going to my tent.”
Mkab entered his small tent and closed the zippered flap.
“Shouldn’t we keep a watch?”
Mkab clenched his fists and told himself that ripping his tent apart to choke Priyat would accomplish nothing. He needed the stupid professor. “I said I was going to my tent. I will take first watch in a few minutes.” He hoped Priyat would at least allow him a few minutes of privacy; most men understood what a few minutes before watch were good for.
“Oh, delightful, then. Wake me up when it’s my turn.” Mkab could hear Priyat pick up the tin can before he went to his own tent. A chuckle escaped his lips. He sat in the darkness of his tent, waiting. Once the tossing and turning sounds from Priyat’s sleeping bag ceased, he carefully dug into his pack and brought out his radio. It was still tuned to the right channel. He plugged in his headphones with the built-in microphone.
“Panther, come in,” he whispered. “This is Python.”
A voice crackled to life in his ears. “Who thought up these stupid codenames, anyway?”
Mkab couldn’t help but chuckle. He hoped it wouldn’t wake Priyat. “Wasn’t me.”
“So, are you in the target zone?”
“Not even close.” Mkab was careful to keep his voice as low as possible. He knew that Taz would have his volume knob cranked up at the other end, anyway. “Priyat dawdles. I’m by the valley, but it’s too dark to go down the ridge, and the tribe does a hunt tonight. Everyone will have to wait until tomorrow.”
“Alright, nothing to be done for it now, I guess. See you tomorrow. Oh, and don’t forget to activate the transponder as soon as you get there. It’ll take us a while to get there, so if they go psycho on you, you’re on your own for a while.”
Mkab chuckled. “It’s not savages that scare me.”
Taz was laughing. “Tough guy like you, I don’t get it. Your bigass gun’ll kill a panther, same as it’ll kill anything else.”
“I must go,” Mkab said. Talk of panthers reminded him that he needed to watch over the campsite. “Over and out, Panther.”
Mkab buried the radio at the bottom of his pack and grabbed his rifle as he exited the tent. He sat down beside the fire and stared out at the darkness beyond the light of the flames.
That was when he heard the drums.