—Shaun Xau, Chairman, Department of Computer Biosciences, Nanotechnology Division, California Institute of Technology
“…Life on earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, genetically engineered virus, or other dangers…”
—Stephen Hawking, Renowned Astrophysicist
Zero-time minus four years.
The terrain had not changed in five hundred miles—jungle, jungle, and more jungle. Lianas and vines hung like huge snakes in the dark as their twisted vegetative coils draped precariously close to the roof of the green Mexican army–style Humvee. Despite being slowed to a crawl, the transport pushed further north into the Yucatán rainforest, having crossed the northern Guatemalan border less than an hour after sundown. Night set in rapidly, leaving the driver to rely solely on an antiquated GPS tracking system and the truck’s twin high beams to maneuver their mysterious cargo over the vast stretches of swampland and dark vegetation. The trip had been arduous since they’d departed Las Canas, a recently shuttered biomedical research facility buried deep in the Guatemalan jungle. Hours of difficult travel had taken their toll on the two primos—cousins—seated in the cab. If trailering the converted livestock cargo bin was not difficult enough, they’d had to stop frequently to cut their way along the narrow carretera, using machetes and chainsaws on nuisance vines and tree limbs. The humidity and heat made them feel they were baking in an oven even at this late hour.
Up ahead, the sound of rushing water told them they were approaching a river. Both prayed the wooden bridge over the Rio Candelaria had not been washed out by recent storms.
Despite the trip’s hardships, though, neither complained. They were being paid well to make their delivery on schedule. The unnamed livestock—they presumed some new exotic breed of cattle—had remained quiet much of the daylight hours. The driver’s instructions were explicit—under no circumstances were the doors of the long-bed trailer to be opened. Air vents located along the cargo hold’s roof had prevented them from gazing inside. They’d also been assured sufficient food and water were present for the two-day haul. Neither man cared. They only desired to complete the transaction and return to their families.
The driver, a small, wiry man from the tiny Mexican
, slapped at his cheek. “Fuckin’ mosca.” Fly. He used his sleeve to wipe away the tiny smear of blood. village of El Caro
His primo, a portly man in khaki fatigues, swigged from the only jug up front. Perspiration stains ran from his armpits to his low back. He offered the water to his compadre.
The driver shook his head. “Chingado,” he cursed, staring ahead.
A large twisting liana blocked their path.
Resignation clouded both their expressions. The Humvee braked in the mud, less than a mile from the Rio Candelaria.
The large man climbed out, reaching for the machete. “What is that?” he asked in Spanish, listening to a new sound that made his skin crawl.
High-pitched squeals had erupted from the cargo trailer.
The wiry driver lifted his rifle. “Mira,” he said, obviously alarmed. Let’s look. He grabbed a flashlight and made his way back to the trailer.
Both men watched in shocked amazement as the long-bed rocked on its shocks.
“What the hell?” the big man muttered. He followed his companion to the rear door, his curiosity piqued. He could hear coarse grunts between the squeals—and what sounded like answering grunts. He experienced a wave of unease.
“We were ordered not to open the door,” he reminded his smaller cousin, who’d removed a key from his pocket.
“That sound like cattle to you?” the driver asked, reaching for the thick metal lock.
The big man shook his head. “Listen,” he whispered.
An unnatural stillness settled over the cargo hold. All rocking ceased. A soft padding sound wafted from the air vents, like bare feet on a carpeted floor.
The driver put his ear to the door. “I think someone’s in the trailer.” He stepped back. “You—in there?” he called out.
All sounds inside ceased.
He looked at his bigger cousin in the dark. “You open it. I’ll cover you, primo.” He adjusted the rifle and flashlight.
The big man hesitated. He didn’t like the situation one bit. Why hadn’t they noticed the commotion inside the bin during the daylight hours when they could see better? More worrisome, though, what had they been duped into transporting?
Plainly displeased, he twisted the key. “Listo?” he asked. Ready?
The driver nodded.
He removed the lock.
“Dios mio,” they shouted in alarm as the trailer doors exploded open, bowling them backwards. The flashlight bulb shattered. Total darkness engulfed them. Thick shadowy figures stampeded over the men, forcing them to use their arms for protection. They could smell an acrid odor that made them want to gag.
“Ouch!” the driver cried out in pain.
In seconds, both men lay alone. On either side of thecarretera, they could hear crunching vegetation. Quickly, the disturbances moved away.
“What the fuck were those?” the wiry man cursed, leaping to his feet, rifle ready.
In shaken disbelief, the big man stared into the jungle, seeing nothing but the black outlines of trees. “They weren’t no fucking cattle, that’s for sure,” he said. “You hurt?”
“One of those things bit me, primo.”
“Could have been worse,” the big man said, unaware it would get worse. Unimaginably worse.