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Excerpt from The Genius Plague

The following is the Prologue from my novel The Genius Plague, published October 3, 2017.  Enjoy!


 

Paul Johns hadn’t seen another human being in six days.

He emerged from the Amazon rainforest, tired and sore, but exhilarated, the sudden brightness bringing a smile to his face. The river sparkled, a vast body of water several kilometers across, even this far from its mouth.

Ahead stood a riverboat station, little more than a few rotting benches and a sign propped against an ancient wooden dock. The sign listed the boat pickup schedule in Portuguese, Spanish, and English, the words faded and water-stained. A dozen or more tourists sat on the benches or milled around nearby, waiting for the boat. Seeing them felt like spotting a rare animal in the brush. Paul’s first instinct was to approach quietly, lest he startle them away.

He had taken at least two wrong turnings before finally finding this path, adding several kilometers to what had already been a long hike. His pack felt like a boulder on his back, his muscles ached, and the skin along his shoulders felt rubbed raw.

The pack was heavier than when he’d first come to the Amazon. Then, he’d been weighed down with freeze-dried food packets, energy bars, a water purifier, his sleeping bag, and hundreds of sample containers. The weight eliminated by eating the food, however, was more than taken up with the fungi samples he’d collected, many of them species never before cataloged or studied. He had even dumped his waterproof blanket and some extra clothing to make room for as many samples as he could carry.

He approached the gaggle of tourists. These were a hardier breed than what you would find at Disney World or the Eiffel Tower, mostly young singles searching for adventure far from home. The shorter, more accessible tours started from Santarém, closer to the coast and civilization. The longer tours made it down as far as Manaus to see the Meeting of the Waters, where the Rio Negro emptied into the Amazon in great swirling spirals of silt. But very few tourists ventured this far past Manaus, and those who did tended to be serious hikers and campers, looking to get beyond the veneer of wilderness and experience the reality.

Judging from their bedrolls, this group had probably been dropped off the day before and spent a night out here, pitting their bravery against the darkness. They might not have slept much, but they talked animatedly, with the charged energy of people who had stared danger in the face and come out the other side.

Paul joined them, knowing that he looked the part. He was young and fitted out with the latest gear, though his beard was perhaps a little longer and his pack larger than the others. He doubted any of them had twenty pounds of mushrooms on their backs. He eased the pack to the ground and stretched luxuriously. This was his third scientific foray into the Amazon, and had been by far the most productive.

“Hey, where did you come from?” a voice said. He turned to see an attractive young woman studying his face with a half-smile on her own. She was blond and fit, with a restless energy that kept her bouncing on the balls of her feet, like a runner keeping limber before the start of a race. “Don’t tell me you’ve been here all along and we haven’t met.”

He stuck out his hand. “I’m Paul.”

She took it and grinned. “Maisie.”

“How long have you been waiting for the boat?” he asked.

“An hour,” she said. “Seriously, though, you just appeared out of nowhere. Where did you come from? Were you camping on your own?”

“I’ve been moving around. Collecting samples for my research,” he said, giving his pack a kick.

“What are you, some kind of scientist?”

“A mycologist. I study fungi.”

“Well, that must be exciting,” she said, with a laugh that was both pleasant and meant she didn’t think it sounded exciting at all.

“It can be,” he said. “There are so many species out here. People are always finding new kinds with amazing properties. A few years ago, somebody came back with a mushroom that can grow on oil spills and chemical dumps, literally soak up the waste and turn it into a thriving ecology.”

That got her interested, and Paul thought she was sincere, not just humoring him. Her questions were insightful, and he found himself talking freely. It would be good to have somebody to help pass the monotony of the ride home. Riverboat schedules on the Amazon were notoriously variable, and Paul knew the boat’s planned arrival time was little more than a vague concept. They might wait an hour or two before it showed up, and then the trip back to Manaus would take a good six hours after that.

Maisie struck Paul as the bored type, a rich girl who had never had to work in her life, and who had turned to extreme fitness and activism as a way to give herself purpose. She would try anything and apparently had, from fried piranha to base jumping, and never turned down a dare.

What Paul liked best about her was that she seemed to understand these things about herself and accept them. She could tell you that her fearlessness gave her a sense of power over her life, and that the fund drives she ran for poor inner city kids were at least partly driven by a sense of guilt about her privileged lifestyle. She thought the fact that her boyfriends never lasted very long was due to an expectation of betrayal from men that she had learned from her father.

“Ever consider a career in psychology?” Paul asked her.

She laughed, a musical outburst that threw her head back and showed off her slim throat. “I’d sooner be a mycologist,” she said.

“Not everyone can be so lucky.”

The rainforest towered on both sides of the river, giant trees choked with vines. Humidity rose thickly from the water, and thousands of insects darted and skated along the surface. They could hear the screech of distant monkeys and the sharp cries of birds. Sweat streaked Paul’s face and clothing, but despite the heat and insects, he was sorry to be leaving.

“So, seriously,” Maisie said. “Fungus? That’s your thing? You’re going to spend your whole life studying mushrooms?”

“If I can keep getting my grants funded.”

“What, you have a Ph.D. already? How old are you?”

“Twenty-four,” Paul lied. In truth, he was only twenty-one, but he didn’t want to deal with the inevitable questions about how young he’d been when he graduated, or what he’d scored on his SATs. Once he did, that was all anybody wanted to talk about, and he’d learned that although women were impressed with such things, it wasn’t the kind of impressed that led to any kind of relationship. More like being a circus monkey in a cage. “Besides,” he said, “it’s not all about mushrooms.”

“No?”

“Mushrooms are only a small part of fungal anatomy. A mushroom is just how a fungus has sex.”

Maisie’s slim eyebrows arched high. “Oh, really,” she said.

“It’s true. A single fungus in a forest like this can go on for miles, underground, wrapping itself around tree roots. The mushrooms are just its reproductive parts. Fungi are some of the largest living things on Earth. Each tendril is nearly microscopic, but put together, they can weigh far more than any California redwood or blue whale.”

“So you’re saying yours is bigger than all the other biologists’?”

Paul grinned. “Absolutely. See, a mushroom thrusts its way up out of the ground or out of the side of a tree,” he said, demonstrating with his hands. “When it grows big enough, it sends millions of spores flying through the air or floating through water. When one of the spores finds an acceptable environment, it germinates, which lets it combine with another germinating spore to produce a new fungus.”

“So fungi have sex from miles away.”

“Sure, you could say that. Sometimes even across continents.”

“That doesn’t sound very intimate.”

“Well, you do have to give mammals some credit. They’ve made some improvements over three hundred million years, especially where sex is concerned.”

The riverboat finally appeared, a two-story affair with weathered blue paint and a flimsy white roof erected on the top deck to keep off the sun. The pilot cut the engine, and the boat drifted ponderously through the water until it bounced against the dock, the collision cushioned by tires strapped along its hull. The pilot jumped lightly down and tossed a rope around a piling. He was dark-skinned and weather-beaten, his face so lined by sun and wind that it was impossible for Paul to tell his age. The tourists pressed forward, and the dock creaked and sagged. Green water sluiced between the boards.

Paul hoisted his pack onto his shoulders and joined the line. He felt a pleasant pressure at his side, and discovered Maisie’s hand on his arm, ostensibly for balance on the shifting dock. He wondered if she was planning to stay the night in Manaus. The pilot urged them in broken, accented English to board carefully, and they shuffled onto the boat.

The larger tourist riverboats were designed for multi-day cruises. They had rows of hammocks, a kitchen that provided meals, and a wet bar open around the clock. On the more traveled routes, you could hear their music pounding away before you even saw them, the top deck a continuous nightclub of carousing foreigners. Paul couldn’t understand why anyone would come to the Amazon and then make such a racket that no animals would come within miles.

This boat was much more subdued, designed for day trips, and fitted with little more than deck chairs and railings. A cooler near the pilot’s seat held water bottles and cans of Skol beer. A meal was supposed to be served halfway through the trip, but Paul couldn’t see where it was hidden. He hoped there would be something, as he had run a bit low on food packets by his last day.

There was only one other woman in the group, and Maisie joined her, looking over pictures the other had taken with what looked like an expensive camera. Paul found a chair on the top deck and settled in, facing south, where he could see more of the river. He was looking forward to a hot shower and a good meal in Manaus, maybe even a massage.

Below, an argument broke out between the pilot and one of the men over the price the pilot was asking for the beer. The passenger thought it should be included in the cost of the trip, for which he had apparently paid much more than Paul had. In this part of the world, everything had a price, but everything was negotiable, too. It helped if you knew the language. Eventually, they settled on a lower figure, and the passenger irritably handed over his money.

With an exhausted sigh, Maisie threw herself into the chair next to Paul. “I am so looking forward to getting back to civilization,” she said.

“Are you staying in Manaus?” he asked.

She nodded. “One more night.”

“Where at?”

“The Tropical.”

Paul whistled. “Nice. That one’s not in my budget.”

She flashed him a grin. “Maybe I could give you a tour.”

A large splash rippled the water, but Paul couldn’t tell what had made it. Some large creature briefly cresting the surface and then returning to the deep. Fish here could grow huge, some as big as a man. Even a pink river dolphin was possible, though those were endangered enough now to be a rare sight.

They chatted about her home in northern California, about the sights they had seen in the rainforest, about how Americans were perceived by the native Brazilians. She was fascinated by his stories of growing up in Brasília, his father a diplomat/spy for the U.S. Embassy. It had been a fairly ordinary childhood, as far as he was concerned, but he embellished the tales to make them sound more romantic. He loved to make her laugh. Looking out over the miles of empty water, they could almost have been the last people on Earth. Almost.

A few hours into their journey, the relative quiet of their own small boat motor was pierced by the rattling roar of a powerful engine. Paul rolled his eyes, expecting a large pleasure cruise, though they weren’t a common sight this far upriver. Instead, it was a Brazilian Navy patrol craft, its high prow cutting through the water much faster than the sluggish riverboat, throwing a spray of water behind it on both sides.

Paul expected it to cruise on past, but instead it converged on them in a wide arc, slowing and coming alongside. After a few shouts back and forth between the pilot and a uniformed man on deck of the patrol boat, they threw ropes and tied the two boats together.

“What’s going on?” Maisie said. They had to shield their eyes from the bright sun to see what was happening.

“I don’t know. Drug inspection, maybe?”

The two crafts killed their engines, leaving an eerie, throbbing silence in their absence. The river lapped against the hulls, causing them to rock gently. A hawk high above them screamed. In the patrol boat, men in fatigue pants and olive drab shirts moved about, tying ropes and talking to each other.

“Something’s wrong,” Paul said softly. Suddenly it seemed like he should whisper.

“What do you mean?”

The soldiers in the patrol boat seemed oddly coordinated, their activity synchronized without any apparent communication. It looked more like choreography than ordinary movement. At a glance from an officer, they stopped as one and came to attention.

The officer stepped down from the patrol craft onto the riverboat. He wore aviator sunglasses, which he took off, folded, and slid into his shirt pocket. The pilot said something to him that Paul couldn’t hear.

“We should hide,” Paul said.

Maisie looked around, her face worried. There was nowhere to go. “What is this? Are you in trouble?”

“I think we’re all in trouble.”

The officer smiled at the riverboat passengers and nodded. He was clean-shaven, with a wide face and laugh lines at the corners of his mouth. From the upper deck, Paul could see that he had a small, sunburned bald spot. The man gave the pilot a broad shrug, as if sorry for the inconvenience. He seemed like a reasonable man, a man you’d like to get to know. Until he drew a pistol and shot the pilot in the face.

It was so sudden, so unexpected, that for a beat nobody moved. A bloody spray erupted from the back of the pilot’s head, and he collapsed to the deck. The shot echoed across the water, startling a flock of birds out of the trees. Then chaos broke out.

The passengers screamed and scrambled away. On the patrol craft, three men lifted automatic weapons in tandem and began to fire into the riverboat. Paul didn’t think; he just reacted. Maisie was still staring at the patrol craft, frozen in shock. He took her by the shoulders and pushed her over the railing. “Swim for shore,” he shouted after her.

On the deck below, the other tourists were dying. There was nowhere for them to run. A few of them managed to jump into the water as well, but Paul couldn’t tell if they had been hit or not. It didn’t matter. There was nothing he could do for them. He dove into the water after Maisie. With the riverboat between them and their attackers, they struck out for shore as fast as they could swim.

It turned out she was the better swimmer. The northern shore didn’t look that far away, but he swam to the point of exhaustion, and it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. They had kicked their shoes off, but their clothes were heavy and soaked through. Maisie stayed with him and helped him, encouraging him to float on his back when he needed to rest. He was young and in good shape, but he never would have made it if not for her.

When they finally reached the shore, he heaved himself up on the swampy bank, shuddering and coughing, his arms and legs shaking with exhaustion. Still, she urged him forward. “Come on, into the forest,” she said. “We want to be out of sight, in case they come looking.” He dragged himself to his feet and leaned on her as they stumbled in among the trees.

The light dimmed as they pushed their way through the vine-choked undergrowth. Once they were inside, the foliage thinned out, no longer fueled by the sunlight into riotous growth. The air was moist and the sounds from the outside deadened. They sat on a fallen branch and just breathed for a time, recovering their strength.

“What are you, some kind of Olympic swimmer?” Paul finally said.

“I do triathlons,” she said woodenly. They were both shivering from the damp, despite the warm air. Paul felt like his clothes were constricting and trying to smother him. He pulled his phone from his pocket, but it was wet through, and when he pushed the button, nothing happened. “Mine, too,” Maisie said. She produced her phone and shook it, and he could hear the water sloshing around inside the case.

They were silent again, until Maisie said, “What happened out there?”

“I don’t know. They weren’t Brazilian Navy, I can tell you that.”

“How did you know what was going to happen?”

“I didn’t. But the men in the boat weren’t speaking Portuguese. It wasn’t any language I recognized.”

“There are indigenous languages spoken around here,” Maisie said. “Couldn’t it have been one of those?”

Paul shook his head. “Not in the military. Doesn’t make any sense.”

“Do you think the others…” she started, but she couldn’t finish the question.

“I don’t know,” he said. “There were some who made it into the water, so they might have escaped.” He tried to sound positive, but privately he thought Maisie’s friends were probably all dead. “How well did you know them?”

She shrugged. “Hardly at all. We put a group together over the Internet, to get a package rate on the trip. I met them all a week ago, when we arrived in Manaus.”

He touched her arm briefly. “I’m sorry.”

All the electricity of their flirtation on the boat was gone now, and he felt the gulf between them of strangers stranded together. He didn’t know this woman, didn’t know her background, how she handled things emotionally, or how she would react to this situation.

Paul stared at his hands, not at all sure how he was handling things himself. His muscles still twitched from the adrenaline of the unexpected attack and the grueling swim. People who just a little while ago had been laughing over photographs and arguing about the price of beer were now dead. His mind raced and spun, unable to think about anything clearly.

Finally, Maisie broke the silence. “What are we going to do?”

The question focused him. “We’re going to survive,” he said. “We’re going to make it back to Manaus, tell the police what happened, and go home.”

She raised her hands, indicating the jungle around them. “We must be fifty miles from Manaus. That’s a long way in the rainforest. We have no food, no packs.” Her voice had an edge of panic.

“Relax,” he said, trying to sound more confident than he really was. “There are plenty of things in the rainforest to eat, if you know what you’re looking for. And we have the river to navigate by, so we can’t possibly get lost. We’ll be fine.”

He was wrong about getting lost. The land near the riverbank was a swampy marshland, almost impossible to walk through, forcing them deeper into the interior where they could no longer see it. The higher the ground, the easier it was to negotiate, but the tendency to steer toward dryer ground led them farther from the river. The thick canopy blocked the sun, and there were no paths. Paul had left his compass behind with the rest of his pack. They were forced to navigate by dead reckoning, which he knew full well was a good way to get thoroughly lost.

If they could just keep heading east, they would hug the river and eventually get close enough to Manaus to find a road or other people. The problem was, it would be all too easy to veer north instead, where there was nothing but rainforest for hundreds of miles.

“Maybe we should just go back to the river and wait for a boat,” he said.

“No.” She was adamant. “No more boats. If those men were thieves, that means they’re lying in wait for any tourist boat that comes through these waters. I don’t want to give them a second chance at me.”

Paul didn’t argue. He didn’t think the patrol boat would still be out there, but he also thought it unlikely there would be boats of any other kind, or that they could get a boat’s attention from the shore if there were. It was better to press on, and do what they could.

As they walked, he kept an eye on the ground, occasionally stopping to examine a mushroom or a fungal shelf growing out of the side of a tree. “What are you looking for?” Maisie asked.

“Our supper.”

She made a face. “I’ve never been much of a mushroom fan.”

“They’ll taste pretty good if you’re hungry enough.”

“Are they hard to find?”

“Not very. There’s fungus all over this forest. All through the soil, growing up around or even inside the trees. It’s like a huge network, keeping the forest alive, culling some plants and allowing others to survive.”

“You make it sound like the fungi are in charge.”

“Well, they sort of are. Organisms aren’t self-sufficient out here; they need the whole ecosystem. Fungi are like the bloodstream. They transfer the moisture and nutrients to where they’re most needed.” He settled gratefully into the familiar topic. Talking about mycology made it easier to avoid thinking about the blood exploding from the back of the riverboat pilot’s head.

“How can a fungus know what trees most need nutrients?” Maisie asked, sounding skeptical.

“You’d be surprised. A fungus has all sorts of senses. It can determine the health of a tree, even detect animals moving around in the forest. Every time you step down”—Paul took an exaggerated step to demonstrate—”you’re stepping on a network of more than eight miles of microscopic mycelia, all intertwined beneath your foot. It can detect the pressure and the weight. When you lift your foot”—again, he demonstrated by lifting his own—”the mycelia immediately move out into the indentation, soaking up the moisture and detritus you left behind. You can’t see them, but they’re there.”

She shuddered. “Sounds creepy.”

Eventually, Paul found a nice patch of Favolus tenuiculus growing out of a stump. The white polypore mushrooms were lovely specimens of the type, their caps pocked with dozens of holes like a Swiss cheese. Maisie took one warily. “You’re sure they’re safe?”

“Quite sure,” he said, taking a bite. “This is what I do for a living. This variety is pretty common in the area. You could probably find it on restaurant menus back in Manaus.”

She smiled wanly. “I had been hoping you might take me out to dinner tonight.”

“There,” he said. “Wish granted.” They smiled at each other, but there was no joy in it.

The mushrooms tasted fine, but they stuck in Paul’s throat, and neither of them ate very much. Their main problem was not food, but water. River water, especially the swampy kind around them, was brackish and swarming with protozoa, bacteria, and viruses that could give them a wide array of illnesses, not to mention millions of fungal spores. Paul had brought an ultraviolet light water purifier as well as chlorine dioxide tablets, but both were, of course, lost with his pack. They had no way to make a fire. Paul found some waxy leaves with rainwater pooled in them, which they dribbled into their mouths. It wasn’t much, but he hoped that they would make it back to civilization before it became a problem.

Night came quickly. It was murky under the trees even in the afternoon, but as the sun lowered, the shadows deepened, until they could barely see where they were going. “Let’s stop,” Paul said. “It’s dry here; it’s as good a place as any.”

The darkness, when it came, was complete. They had both been sleeping outside in the rainforest already, but this was different. Instead of mastering their environment, it felt like they were at its mercy. They leaned their backs together against a large tree, unwilling to put their heads down among the crawling things on the bare ground.

Paul sat awake, uncomfortable in his damp clothing. He had considered taking them off and hanging them to dry, but he knew from experience how bad the insects could be at night, and wanted as much of his skin covered as possible, especially since they had no mosquito netting or bug spray. Beside him, Maisie shifted in the dark, as sleepless and uncomfortable as he.

“What’s that?” she said.

He listened, thinking she had heard something, but a moment later realized that she was seeing something instead. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he saw a faint green glow resolve out of the gloom. He knew what it was. Foxfire.

“What’s foxfire?” she asked when he told her.

“Bioluminescent fungi. A lot of species excrete an oxidative enzyme that glows at night, attracting insects to help spread their spores. Kind of like bright flowers attracting pollinators. Watch this.” Paul clambered to his feet and felt his way carefully toward the glow. It was still extremely dark. He couldn’t actually see his feet, and stumbled a few times before he found it. A dead log, about the size of his leg, emitting a faint green light along the cracked seams of its bark.

He picked it up. “Fungi are the great decomposers of the forest,” he said. “Any kind of dead organic material will be riddled through with mycelial strands within a few hours after death. Soil couldn’t exist without fungi breaking things down. They were the first organisms to colonize the land, a good hundred million years before plants.” He heaved the log into the woods. It struck a tree and exploded apart, sending a shower of green sparks through the air that illuminated them with an eerie green glow. Paul made his way back to her, able to see slightly now in the dim light.

“I can’t sleep,” she said. “I’m wet, and I’m scared, and I’m so angry I would kill those men right now, every one of them, without a second thought, if I had the chance. What were they doing? We never did anything to them. They just murdered a dozen people, for no reason at all. Why? Who would do something like that?”

Paul sat down next to her again. “There’s been a lot of nationalist sentiment in Pará and some of the other Northern states,” he said. “People saying that Americans are ruining their country, wanting them to stay out, that sort of thing.”

“That’s stupid,” Maisie said. “Their whole economy is based on tourism.”

“Maybe a few of them took the sentiment too far.”

“No. That doesn’t make sense. These people were organized. If they weren’t Navy, then they stole a Navy boat and military uniforms. They had automatic weapons. This wasn’t a few guys with too much to drink taking their emotions out on a few Americans. They were too well outfitted for that.”

“You’re right. I don’t know who would want to do such a thing.”

“I just want to be home,” she said. “I want to be back in California, where things make sense.”

Paul couldn’t help it. He laughed, though he immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I just never thought of California as making sense.”

She didn’t take offense. “More sense than they do here, anyway.”

The green glow hadn’t diminished. If anything, it had grown brighter, though maybe that was his eyes still adjusting. He could make out the expression on her face now, and see the basic lines of her body next to him. He stood, wanting to see what was left of the rotten log, but instead he saw something strange. Luminescent spots, more of them, stretching out into the distance. He squinted, trying to make sense of them in the darkness. It was hard to get a good idea of how far away they were, but they seemed to be forming two glowing lines. Straight, parallel lines. He shook his head, afraid he was hallucinating, but when he looked again, they were still there.

“Check this out,” he said.

Maisie joined him on her feet. The green splotches glowed brightly, and the lines were unmistakable. “It’s a path,” she said.

It certainly looked like one. But what kind of path would be illuminated by fungi? Paul stepped forward, then bent down and examined the first of the spots, which was on the side of a tree. The tree itself was covered in fungal patches, and a few conks grew from one side, but only this single patch was glowing. He walked to the next patch, this one on the ground, and found the same thing—an area full of fungi, but only this one small patch glowing. What was going on?

“We should follow it,” Maisie said.

“What?”

“It’s got to be man-made, right? Nothing organic goes in straight lines like that. If it’s a human path, then it has to lead somewhere.”

Paul couldn’t argue with her reasoning, but neither did he know of any way a human could make a path out of selectively-triggered bioluminescent fungi. “It is leading the direction we want to go,” he said, shrugging.

“And it’s not like we’re getting any sleep. I don’t want to sit here all night feeling sorry for myself and getting sick. I want to get home.”

“I guess we don’t have anything to lose,” Paul said. He wanted to get up and move just as much as she did. And besides, as a mycologist, he found it hard to leave a mystery like this unexamined.

They walked side by side, the foxfire providing just enough light to see the path ahead of them, but not enough to see much beyond it. The going was relatively easy, and the double lines curved to avoid swampy areas and other pitfalls. They made better time than they had walking during the day.

From time to time, Paul stopped to examine the glowing spots, but he learned nothing new. The fungus all appeared to be the same species, one that he didn’t recognize. He wanted to take a sample, but he knew it would be useless to do so. All of his sample bags were still in his abandoned pack, and putting samples in his damp pocket would just mean a pocketful of decaying slime by the time he could retrieve them.

The path continued on for miles, navigating them unerringly across easy terrain and around obstacles. They followed it, its twin glowing lines stretching deeper into the dark forest, until the light vanished. Without warning, the luminescence shut off as suddenly as if someone had thrown a switch, plunging them into complete darkness.

He felt Maisie’s hand groping for his, and he grasped it, holding on tightly.

“Paul?” she said, her voice tight with fear. “What’s going on?”

 


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