Chapter 2 – Amanda
The brothers gathered the first men and showed them many things,
On the first day they brought them fire, and the first men had light and warmth,
On the second day they brought them the axe, and the first men could shape and divide,
On the third day they brought the spear, and the first men could hunt and eat of lesser creatures,
On the fourth day they brought them furs, and the first men were no longer naked and cold.
These were the gifts the brothers gave to the first men.
Extract from the holy text of the Swuelo tribe
The buzz of insects greeted me as I slipped the gentle embrace of slumber. It was warm and wet, but I would have it no other way. England’s cool sheets were a distant memory after living so long in the Amazon.
Soon Amanye would bring me my breakfast; feki fruit and banana from the jungle, fresh from the branches outside of her hut. It always seemed so strange to me that the banana tree was such a huge part of the amazonian diet, yet the plant was not native to the rainforest. Even the leaves were used in hundreds of ways by almost every tribe I had encountered in my many years of study; roof tiling, fishing lines, shoes, even wrapping their food with the thick waxy leaves and baking it in the fire pit.
Despite the great respect that the Ayoreo tribe held for me, they were yet to be convinced that the plant only arrived in Brazil in the 1500’s and had actually started its journey in a distant land, brought by the Portuguese conquistadors when they came for gold and conquest. Six hundred years later and a new set of conquistadors had come, ready to seize the Ayore homeland.
The disastrous global oxygen offsetting law had allowed India to replace every kilometre of forest they harvested with their oxygen farms, pumping out artificial air in the southern plains of Andhra Pradesh. Having destroyed their own rainforest, Indian prospectors turned their eyes to the Amazon. With Brazil in their worst recession since the oil crisis of 2089, their government had done a deal with the devil, selling the Amazon in its entirety to settle their debts to Indo- China. That was when I had to take a stand.
Celebrity status was something I had never wanted. Yet the only way to fight these faceless corporations was to become a face myself. So I became Amanda Shepherd, protector of the Amazon, celebrity anthropologist. The film crews came and went, my satelite video diary became the new reality television of the masses, streamed live to every device on the planet. My silhouette was on t-shirts, newscasters flew in by helicopter just to speak to me.
Just to see the smiles of the native children was worth it. But after five of the best years of my life, we had lost. My star was waning. The lobbies and the protests had failed. The harvesters were lining up on the edges of the forest. To be honest we had been lucky to last as long as we did.
Then the offer came. The preservation of ten thousand acres of rainforest in exchange for joining the test crew in Lagrange from their mysterious benefactor, presented by a poker faced representative sweating in his monkey suit outside my hut. It took a long time to convince me it was real. Why would they want an anthropologist, in space? Was my fame being used as a publicity stunt? It did not matter. When the papers were offered to me I signed and…wait.
I was not in Amanye’s hut. The buzzing of insect wings was too deep and loud. The howler monkeys were not sounding their morning warnings. I remembered…falling. I opened my eyes.
The grey walls of the pod swam into focus. I was hanging awkwardly from the side wall, my legs dangling a foot from the ground. I slapped my palm against the buckle on my chest, dropping onto the floor as my restraints flew apart. The hatch on the side was slightly open, warped into a half foot opening from the impact of the landing.
I staggered to the hatch and pushed at it, but its hinges were too twisted to allow movement. I eyed the empty space suit hanging in the corner. Too late for that now, not that the opening would have accommodated the helmet anyway. Whatever I was breathing, it seemed to be doing the trick. I pushed the only other item in the pod through the gap, our panic bag, designed for short term survival on Mars in the event of a crash landing.
I slipped my shoulder into the crack and pushed. For once I was thankful for the slim physique and modest curves my mother had given me as I eased my way through. For one horrible moment I had thought I was stuck, but I breathed out every cubic inch of air from my lungs and forced myself out of the opening. I pitched ungracefully onto the ground outside, face first into the soil. More mankind’s first headstand than first step.
Lurching to my feet, I took in my new surroundings. Green. All around me there was green. The ground was covered in a thick coating of moss and large dead leaves. The canopy stretched higher than I thought possible, hundreds of feet above me. There was a ragged hole where the pod had crashed through, sending down a pillar of light that extended twenty feet around me. Although the sun was directly above me, squinting allowed me to see traces of the contrails that the ship must have left when it crash landed. That told me I could not have been unconscious for more than one or two hours at most. Well at least I had a direction to go in now.
The forest around me was shaded and murky. Strangely, the trees seemed bare of branches and leaves until the very top, their long fleshy trunks stretching monolithically into the sky. Clearly their battle for photosynthesis dictated that growth so far down in the dark wasn’t worth the energy. Their trunks seemed oddly thin and smooth, I could probably wrap my arms around one and touch my finger tips.
Bushes with thick, platelike leaves covered the forest floor. It was going to be a struggle to battle my way through them. This strange variation in plant size left a sizeable gap between the canopy and the bushes below.
I stood motionless for a while, weighing my options. I felt my childhood fear of the dark returning; I did not want to leave the circle of light, yet the movement of the sun was already angling it away. I would need to move on soon.
Then I saw it. The hum of its wings was like the drone of a helicopter, juddering deep in my chest beneath my bruised ribs. For all the world it looked like a dragonfly, yet it was the size of a small pigeon. It flitted back and forth through the light, flashing metallic cerulean and magenta.
The word alien came to mind unbidden, but I quashed it straight away. It felt wrong to label it so. It was beautiful. Weaving its way through the mess of tangled parachute cords stretching from the crumpled canvas that lay beside me like an abandoned plastic bag, it landed gracefully on the pod.
The first thing I noticed were its legs. There were eight of them, hairy like a spiders. An arthropod then. The two eyes shone with dark orange saffron, each tiny hexagon visible to the naked eye. Its had four wings, twin ovals that remained extended even when it had landed. Then, as quickly as it had come, it skimmed away, heading in the direction of our crashed ship.
“Alright then guardian angel. Let’s see where you take me.” I muttered to myself. Shouldering the bag, I strode out of the circle of light, and into the darkness.
I found him just a few hundred feet from where my own pod had crashed. My guardian angel had settled on the end of his boots, preening its eyes with its front legs. The pod hung hundreds of feet above him, the parachute caught up in the canopy. It did not look too stable.
I knelt by the inert body and brushed his hair back. It was Captain Hobbs. We had almost never spoken; the older crew tended to keep to themselves. I think they were resentful of the younger crew coming in to replace them. I was twenty eight, so the old hands had lumped me in with the others. They did not even need to train me; I was nothing more than a glorified observer, so my level of interaction with the older crew was even further limited. I think the most I contributed to the mission was waving to the crowds before we boarded the shuttle that took us up to Lagrange.
I did not think the captain would be the first survivor I found. He must have been the second person to eject. So much for the captain going down with his ship.
He must have tried to climb down the nearest trunk, but fallen before he made it to the ground. The moss was soft and springy underfoot, but a fall from that height would have killed anyone.
Then I was facedown in the dirt for the second time that day, with an iron grip around my neck and throat. Almost immediately the pressure eased up. I spat the acrid soil out of my mouth, tasting of grit and rotten leaves. I wiped the mud from my eyes and saw Captain Hobbs with a bemused look on his face.
“You should be more careful girl. I heard you coming from a mile off. God knows what’s out in this jungle. I thought it best to play dead. Sorry.”
“I thought you had fallen!” My words were choked. My throat was still sore from his rough hands.
“It’ll take more than climbing down a tree to take me out. Just needed to wrap the strap from my panic bag round the trunk and I slid down it like a fireman’s pole.” He held up the bag.
“What on earth were you doing jumping on me like that? If I had been a predator you would probably have been mauled to death by now!” I pointed out reproachfully.
“To be honest when you started pawing at my face I had a change of heart. Better to go down fighting than have half my face eaten off while I lie here like a gourmet dinner.” He said with an apologetic smile on his face.
“Well make up your mind next time. It is like the Tuscararo tribe used to say, those who have one foot in the canoe and one foot in the boat will end up falling in the river.”
“And what happened to them eh? I’ll take my wisdom from a race of people who are still in existence.”
I sighed exasperatedly and looked around me.My gaurdian angel throbbed the air with its wings, hanging in space like a hummingbird.
“The hell is that!” shouted Hobbs, noticing it for the first time. He swiped at it with his bag.
“Don’t! He led me straight to you!” I yelled. He looked at me as if I was crazy.
“Maybe he can find the others.” I said lamely.
“It’s a godammned insect not a bloodhound.” he said. I did not bother correcting him. He gave it another lazy swipe but it was a good four feet above him, hovering in the empty gap between the bushes and the canopy.
“Come on then. Let’s follow your little pet. I guess it will be as good a direction as any.” Hobbs said with a sigh. As if it had heard him, the little creature buzzed off, its magenta abdomen flashing in the beams of sunlight which penetrated the canopy.
It was slow going, but I was glad at the lack of creatures in this part of the forest. In the Amazon I was constantly brushing insects and cobwebs out of my eyes and hair.
There were a few ant like creatures, again with eight hairy legs and long curling antennae, yet there were no winged bugs to speak of, barring my little friend of course. I could barely glance at these smaller bugs, since Hobbs was setting a furious pace and I did not want to lose sight of him in the bushes. The plants were steadily getting higher and higher. Instead of maneuvering his way through carefully, he left a wake of broken stems. At least the trail he left was easier for me to navigate.
The sound he made was more like a bulldozer tearing through the forest rather than a wiry aging man. My thoughts turned to the Ayoreos, but I pushed them away. I did not want to question if the promise that had been made to me had been kept.
“So what are you doing on this god forsaken trip then kiddo? You’re some kind of fancy journalist are you?” He said over his shoulder, ducking under a low hanging branch. There was beginning to be more plant variation now. Although many did not look out of the ordinary in their design, all were banded and dotted with different shades of green, ranging from pale celadon to deep viridian. It created a somewhat kaleidoscopic effect that messed with my depth perception.
“You don’t watch much television do you Captain?” I said breathlessly, pushing my way through a particularly knotted patch of vegetation.
“Well when you’re out in the depths of space for six years, the E-connection isn’t so good you know?” He said sarcastically. I grunted in agreement, then realised how unladylike I must appear. I had picked up one of Amanye’s mannerisms; a short grunt was a common indicator of assent in the Ayoreo.
“That’s fair enough.” I said grumpily. I meant it too. I just did not like his tone.
“So tell me.” he said, sparing me no more words. I could tell he was getting tired already. Sweat had soaked the back of his vest. His arms were covered in scratches from his fight with the jungle plants.
“I’m a biologist and anthropologist. I lived out in the Amazon for five years, fighting to keep the forest alive. While I was there I collected as many specimens as possible before they were destroyed. I became quite famous. Probably for being the mad white woman who lived in the jungle with the savages. I’ve not spent more than a few hours at a time without having half the world watching me on the live feeds. Kept the Tatai corporation’s hands off my forest for a good while though.”
“What happened,” He asked, “Don’t they need you anymore?”
“People stopped caring. The new colonies on Mars became the latest fascination. But whoever funded this mission offered to buy up enough of the forest to keep my tribe and several others safe. Probably wanted the publicity to drive up the stock value. I know they were going to go public if the mission was a success. So much for that…” I trailed off.
We were silent for a time, the only sounds were our laboured breathing, cracking branches and the dull throb of our guide’s wings. The green had already begun to be dotted with flashes of red and blue, with huge orchid-like flowers hanging heavily like ripe fruit. I inspected one that had fallen to the ground as Hobbs pushed a patch of stems aside. Its vermillion petals were like red lips pressed succulently together. I noted my little friend had flown in and out of one of the flower’s siblings, preening its antennae before skimming back out into the open space above the bushes. The air had become sickly sweet, presumably from the nectar within each bud.
I wondered why the fly was travelling in such a straight and direct line. My only theory was that it was attracted to where the sunlight had freshly broken through the canopy, where infant flowering plants would be most likely to emerge within the next few hours. It must be able to sense the smell of the sap from the broken branches at each crash site and was following it by instinct. It would probably continue back and forth along this route for the next few hours.
Another fly hummed by, travelling in the complete opposite direction. This one was a striped mix of vivid turquoise and dull yellow ochre. More followed behind, with each colouring more complex than the last. Soon we were on a highway of flies, some as large as a sparrow, others the size of our little friend. I could still spot him, since he was the only one travelling in the opposite direction. Clearly they were all of the same species. Their disparity of colours must be some form of courtship requirement, similar to reef fish. What was left of them on earth anyway.
“Look!” Gasped Hobbs, he pointed ahead, then put his hands on his knees and leant forward, taking in deep sobbing breaths. For a moment I did not understand why he had driven us so hard, especially with no water in sight. Then I realised. His crew. Six years in a ship that was even smaller than ours had been. They must have been like family to him.
I squinted through the highway of insects. I could see a pillar of light ahead. Flies were swarming around it like piranha around an injured river dolphin. The swirling tornado of wings thrummed the air in a deep pulse that echoed in my heart beat. We broke into the light. Already delicate shoots of green were emerging from the earth beneath the existing bushes. My hypothesis was correct.
The flies continued to swirl. Our little friend was nowhere to be seen, so I sent him a silent thanks and followed Hobbs to the pod. The hatch door was ajar, but because of the way the pod had fallen on its backside, the opening was at the top.
Hobbs continued to gasp and choke, falling into a crouch on an unusually flattened patch of vegetation. Perhaps the pod had rolled over it before settling.
“You go. I can’t climb that right now. Anti gravity is hell on the body. Bloody useless exercise bikes.”
“Alright. You stay there.” I said.
“Okay. I would have gone off for a jaunt through the woods otherwise.” he said sarcastically.
I scrambled against the smooth sides until I got a finger hold on the sharp edge of the opening. I hauled myself up, wincing as the metal dug into the tendons on my fingers, then looked in.
Empty. No panic bag, no spacesuit. Then my heart caught in my throat. A handprint, bloody and trailing, had stained the white panelling on the inside. I pulled myself up further and stood above the hatch, my legs akimbo on each side of it. That was the only trace of blood I could see. But it was enough to put me on edge. I straightened.
“Are they alright?” asked Hobbs loudly. I turned to answer.
At first I could not comprehend what I saw, but as my eyes flicked over it my heart began to beat frantically. Hobbs was sat in a patch of flattened plants around three feet in diameter. But it was the shape. It was unmistakable.
He was seated in the middle of a clawprint, with three dominant toes and a balance digit at the back. The point of each claw had drilled a hole into the ground. Not for climbing, the trees were too skinny and the terrain was too flat. A predator then.
The next print was a few feet away, then another again. The trail it had left was not as obvious as ours, yet from my vantage the direction was undeniable. It followed the highway of flies. It was going to the next pod.