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The boxy gray helicopter, its long rotor blades thumping rhythmically, slowly descended toward the top of the rain forest. Delaney Jeffries stood in the big door at the craft's side and looked down at the mist shrouding the trees. The morning sun would soon finish burning the vapor away, but then the rains would come that afternoon and the condensation would be back again. It was a constant cycle, tropical downpours followed by a blazing sun, over and over again, creating a never-ending, sweltering dampness. He could feel it even now, the damp warmth mixed in the buffeting wash from the rotor blades whipping at his khakis.
Three weeks of it. Three weeks of his group and the groups from the other universities boating in and out of swamps and tidal flats and helicoptering into the interior of the forest. There had never before been so many Ph.D.s and top graduate assistants teamed in such a massive gathering of exotic plants. And there had never been so many people grown tired of it.
And after all the effort, had they found a specimen that might later yield a new medicine? Frankly he had reached the point of not really caring. Just let him get back home to a decent bed and air conditioner.
And then the helicopter stopped its descent and hovered.
"Ready when you are, Delaney," came the voice through his helmet's earphones.
He pulled the visor down across his face, buckled the chin strap under his firm jaw, slipped on his gloves, and moved to the very edge of the doorway. A hand reached out from behind him and checked the cable running from his upper body harness to an extension on the helicopter's roof. He felt a pat on his shoulder. He clasped the edges of the doorway, looked down at the trees for a moment, and then swung out into the bright sunlight.
In seconds he was lowered into leaves whipping wildly in the wash of the rotor blades. Twigs jabbed and pulled at his shirt and pants. Branches laden with dark growth slid across his visor. He glimpsed a wide tree limb coming up toward him, kicked out around it, and broke through the canopy into a dim twilight stretching to the ground a hundred feet below.
"I'm through," he said, and the cable increased its rate of descent.
In moments he had touched down. He quickly unsnapped the cable and raised his visor. "Take it away," he said, and the cable started back up.
"Here I come," said a feminine voice through his earphones. "Catch me if I fall."
He smiled and looked up toward the tree tops. A few feet off to the side of his ascending cable, a pair of boots kicked through the leaves and a pair of slim, khaki-clad legs followed. Then Jordan was through and, hanging froward in her harness suspended by a second cable, smiled down at him.
"It's beautiful," she shouted into her mike.
In seconds she was on the ground. She unsnapped the cable from her harness, slipped off her helmet and shook out her long brown hair, then walked toward a clump of tall, shimmering blue ferns growing at the base of a massive tree trunk at least twenty feet in circumference.
"Look, they're almost iridescent," she said back across her shoulder as she reached out to touch the narrow, featherlike fronds of one of the plants. Then she looked up at a shower of twigs and leaves coming from above.
Paul's muscular figure broke through the canopy. In addition to the revolvers they all wore, he carried a rifle slung across his wide shoulder and had a machete strapped to his waist.
Jordan walked toward him as he touched down and his cable went back into the air. The next time a cable came through the treetops, it had a bundle of small, shoe-box-sized specimen boxes and a radio directional beacon tethered at its end.
When the bundle was on the ground and the cable ascending again, Delaney looked up toward the helicopter. "See you in a few hours, Alex."
"Want to check the beacon first?" the voice came back. "It's a long walk out of here if we can't find you."
Jordan set her helmet on top of the bundle, lifted the small walkie-talkie-shaped directional beacon, and flicked a switch on its side.
"Read it loud and clear," Alex said. Then he said something unintelligible to the helicopter pilot. The branches at the top of the trees swayed at a sudden increase in the craft's rotor wash as it turned and moved away. Jordan lifted one of the specimen boxes from the bundle and walked toward the ferns. Delaney looked past her through the massive, widely spaced brown trunks. Even with the distance between the trees, the cover of their intermingled, vine-matted tops virtually blanked out the sunlight. And the farther he looked the dimmer it was. Only a few hundred feet beyond the ferns it looked as if someone had turned off a light switch--only a deep darkness beyond that point. Paul caught a handful of the dirt at his feet and squeezed it into a mud ball in his big hand. "I doubt it ever dries out with the cover this thick," he said.
"Look," Jordan said. She pointed past the ferns to a thick vine covered with orange flowers as it ran up the side of a tree trunk.
She was still in that position, her arm lifted in front of her, when a small dart thudded into the side of her neck.
She didn't fall. She didn't even jerk from the impact. Just a flinch, and her hand grabbing at her neck as if a bee had stung her. Her eyes widened at the feel of the feathery stub of the shaft, and she yanked it from her neck.
Delaney sprinted toward her. He and Paul reached her together. The color gone from her face, she stared at the three-inch dart lying at her feet. She tried to say something, but was in such shock her lips only moved without any sound coming forth. Paul raised his rifle toward the trees off to her side. Delaney grabbed Jordan's arm. The barely perceptible sound of a dart in flight whisked by his head. Paul's rifle fired loudly. Delaney pulled Jordan toward the cover of a wide tree trunk. "Alex!" he yelled into his mike.
Paul fired again.
Delaney pushed Jordan behind the trunk. Her face completely pale now, she held the side of her neck. A trickle of blood ran between her fingers. He pulled her to him and held her tightly. "Alex, Damnit!"
Paul slammed into the trunk beside them. He stared at Jordan, then looked around the trunk. A dart whizzed by the tree. He raised his rifle and fired it rapidly three times.
"Alex" Delaney said, still speaking loudly, still hoping to make himself heard, but with his stomach twisting with the knowledge the helicopter was probably too far away for the weak helmet radio.
"Read you, Delaney, faint. What do--"
"Get back here quick! Jordan's been hit with a dart!"
Alex didn't say anything in response. But Delaney knew he had been understood. Alex would have the pilot wheel the helicopter around in as short a turn as possible and come back to them with the craft's throttles open wide. But Alex would also know there was no use. Delaney caught Paul's glance. Paul knew, too. They all knew. Jordan knew.
It should have started already. The poison should have begun its spread within seconds of the dart hitting. He couldn't help but look down at Jordan's hands. That's how curare worked, paralyzing the extremities first, then spreading through the body, finally paralyzing the lungs, killing its victim by horrible suffocation. God, please, no, he thought, and he felt like he was going to vomit.
The sound of the helicopter reached them.
Jordan spoke in a voice so low he could barely hear it. "I should be feeling it," she began. "I..." He felt her shiver against him. "But I don't feel anything."
There was a sound of hope in her tone, beyond hope, pleading. She was trying to convince herself. Then the tops of the trees swayed a couple of hundred feet from them.
"Delaney," came Alex's voice.
"South!" Delaney shouted into his mike. "Come south!"
The swaying leaves moved toward them. The helicopter stopped while still at least seventy feet away. They didn't have time to direct it any closer. "Let the cables down." He caught Jordan's arm. Paul looked around the tree trunk.
Alex's thick shape broke through the matted cover above. He must have been coming down while the helicopter was still moving. He came down rapidly. He held the end of the second cable in his hand. Paul sprinted out into the open. Delaney urged Jordan after him.
Paul went on between the cables, past Alex. He fired his rifle repeatedly from his hip while still running, tripped on a vine, stumbled, sprawled forward to the ground, rolled, and came to his knees. He fired again, and then the rifle clicked empty. Delaney hooked the end of the cable to Jordan's harness. "Take us up!" he yelled, and grabbed for a spot on the cable above Jordan's head. It tightened. Paul dropped his rifle and sprinted toward them. Alex started up. Paul jumped and caught the cable behind Alex's neck. They started revolving. Delaney and Jordan went up straight. Paul tried to twist to look in the direction from where the darts had been fired. He had his revolver out and swept its barrel back and forth toward the ground. Delaney looked above them at the approaching canopy. Seventy-five feet to its cover. Fifty feet. Twenty-five feet. The pilot was pulling them up as fast as the winch would wind. Another few seconds without a dart finding them and...
Their heads and shoulders slammed into the first branches. Delaney tried to protect Jordan's face from the jabbing twigs with his gloved hand. Paul grunted. Alex grabbed him. But Paul hadn't been hit by a dart. A jaggered branch had torn into his arm.
In a moment they were above the trees.
Even before they reached the helicopter it started moving slowly away. Delaney caught the edges of the wide doorway, pulled himself and Jordan inside, unsnapped her cable, and reached back for Paul and Alex. Catching Paul by the shoulder he pulled him toward the opening. Paul grabbed an edge of the doorway and swung his legs into the compartment. Alex came in and went to his knees. Delaney looked across his shoulder.
Jordan had scooted back against the far bulkhead. She was looking at her hand, raised in front of her. As he stared at her, her lip trembled, and he felt his heart twist.
-- (c) Charles Wilson. All Rights Reserved
Posted September 11, 2001
This was the first book by Charles Wilson that I have read. It captures you from the beginning and holds you throughout the book. The characters are loveable and when things go wrong you feel the pain and the determination that they do. It is a must read!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.