Minutes to Burnby Gregg Hurwitz
The year is 2007. The sun burns skin to a crisp in minutes because of the depleted ozone layer. Powerful earthquakes and monstrous hurricanes wrack the western hemisphere, igniting violent outbreaks of rioting throughout South America. Two scientists volunteer to position critical tectonic equipment on Sangre de Dios, a deserted island in the Calápagos. A… See more details below
The year is 2007. The sun burns skin to a crisp in minutes because of the depleted ozone layer. Powerful earthquakes and monstrous hurricanes wrack the western hemisphere, igniting violent outbreaks of rioting throughout South America. Two scientists volunteer to position critical tectonic equipment on Sangre de Dios, a deserted island in the Calápagos. A ragtag squad of Navy SEALs is dispatched to escort the scientists safely to the island. As the stunned scientists and soldiers stumble upon an ecological mystery in the island's haunted Scalesia forest, they find themselves within a vicious, predatory battle for the survival of the fittest that could affect the entire planet.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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Minutes to Burn
15 Nov 07
A faint cry carried into the house, distracting Ramón Lopez Estrada from the plate of fried pork. He froze, fork raised halfway to his mouth. The noise had probably come from the livestock pens at the edge of his property, across the rows of crops. It was slightly different than the usual, restless mooing of the cows -- it was more like a frightened whinny. Dismissing it to the wind, he took a bite and loaded up another generous forkful. He ate hungrily; he'd worked on his farm from sunup until dusk, clearing another section of forest to free the volcanic soil for crops.
Soil was a rarity in Galápagos, islands formed of basaltic lava. It took hundreds of years for the barren rock to soften, turning to brick-red clay as its iron oxidized, then to topsoil as roots and rain intervened. Over millennia, dense Scalesia pedunculata forests emerged and flourished, the trees stretching as high as twenty meters in the air. Only the most elevated regions of the highest islands had undergone the process in its entirety, catching clouds that passed aloof and withholding over the scorched lowlands.
Floreana, her belly rounded beneath her apron, stopped behind Ramón and rubbed his aching shoulders. She paused to pluck a twig from his hair and tickled his cheek with it until he lovingly shooed her away.
They'd had one child already, a boy whom Ramón had sent to Puerto Ayora to find work and play. Ramón had chosen his boy's happiness over his own need for a second pair of hands around the farm, permitting him to discover life in the small port town on Santa Cruz. However, that meant more timefor Ramón in the fields, clearing the forest, building pens for his livestock, planting his crops with a meticulousness based on the seasons and his own islander's sense.
Because of the earthquakes, the supply ship had stopped passing by last month. Without any gasoline or oil, the town had slowed down, like a wind-up toy losing steam. The chainsaws no longer roared in the mornings, the gas stoves were used only as countertops, the houses fell dark after dusk-even Ramón prize tiller sat in the field collecting rust while he worked the ground with a spading fork.
Sangre de Dios had been a sparsely populated island to begin with, and the new conditions had driven the other farming families away. Though few had admitted it, many had also fled because of the strange things that had been happening around the island. Dogs and goats missing, changes in the behavior of the wildlife. The girls who used to live one farm over told stories about the tree monster with glistening fangs. And then Marco's little girl had gone missing. After a week of frantic searching, they'd given her up for dead, and Marco had taken his family and moved to the continent.
Ramón and Floreana were now living on a deserted island. In their haste to leave, one of the families had stolen their boat. But it didn't matter -- Floreana was too pregnant to travel anywhere until she delivered, and an oil tanker still passed by the island every other month.
Ramón finished his meal and pulled his wife into his lap. He groaned, pretending to be crushed by her weight. She laughed and pointed to her stomach. "This is your fault, you know," she said. Her voice was high and lively; she spoke a rapid, chattering Spanish with the accent of the Oriente, though she's been born in Galápagos. She'd been named for the island of her birth.
Ramón raised a hand to her cheek and leaned forward to kiss her, but Floreana playfully pushed him away, wiping a smudge of ají from his lip with her thumb and clearing his plate. She pointed to the stack of logs in the corner of the humble box of a house. Built of porous concrete blocks cemented with a thick, messy mortar, the walls were cracked and skewed by the numerous earthquakes that wracked the small island. A cooking fire danced in the hearth, which was little more than two absent blocks backed with plywood and opened to the Pacific air above.
Ramón groaned, lowering his head to the table with a thump. His fork and knife jangled. With a sigh, he rose and crossed to the fireplace. Picking up the ax, he twirled it as he stood a log on end on the dirt floor. Suddenly, a loud bleating split the air. Floreana dropped the plate, which shattered across the counter, and the ax slipped through Ramón hand, giving his index finger a deep nick. The bleating rounded out into a moan, and Ramón realized it was an animal bellowing in pain. The cry, an intensified version of the one he'd heard minutes before, was rife with panic. Instinctively, Floreana circled the table toward her husband, her eyes on the small hole of the window.
The sound was coming from the livestock pens, across the rows of crops. Ramón squeezed his wife reassuringly, but his hand was trembling. He stepped for the door, ax swinging by his side, blood curling around his finger and dripping to the floor.
The nights were growing warmer and the air outside was thick and moist. The garúa was settling into the peaks of the forest, crowning it with ribbons of mist. The cry came again, this time with more urgency, and Ramón imagined he felt it rattling through his bones. He passed through the low castor oil plants, the wide-leafed flowering guavas, the tall stands of placute;tanos. Beside him hung the bunches of fruit, hard-sheathed and ridged. He thought of the panicked looks in the eyes of his neighbors who had fled, the foolish stories that had been told around the village. The tall tales seemed more real in the darkness.
The cry elevated into an almost human scream, undulating unnaturally, Eke the wail of a child seized and shaken. Its pitch, except when wrenched high with pain, was low and broad, issuing from some large creature. There was more bleating, more sounds of struggle. Though the air was cool, Ramón felt his shirt clinging to his body, moist and limp. He tightened his grip on the ax, thinking of his over-under shotgun in the small house and cursing the ammunition shortage, and reached a hand out cautiously to part the fronds.
Something lay up ahead, wheezing in the tall grass of the westernmost livestock pen. A large creature, lost in the shadows, the darkness, and Ramón's own intoxicating fear, was retreating slowly to the brink of the forest. At least three meters tall, it seemed to walk upright like a man, the grass shushing around its swollen body. Unhurried, it reached the edge of the Scalesia forest and faded from sight.
A renewed cry brought Ramón's attention back to the injured beast. It was one of Ramón's favorites, a thick brown-and-white spotted cow. He stepped forward, trying to focus on her, but his mind Was slow and unresponsive, having followed the thick majestic creature through the mist and into the forest.
The cow bleated again, but its cries had none of the fearful edge of before. Its side was raked open in two diagonal strips, the torn flesh revealing a crushed tangle of ribs and tissue. Her breath rattled through the holes, fluttering the fur surrounding the gashes. Her hind leg was snapped back under her body, and her head rested at a painful angle to her neck, as if she'd been raised and dropped, or thrown a short distance in frustration.
As if something had bitten off more than it could chew.
Ramón lowered the ax to his side, breathing hard. There were no bears here, no large cats or crocodiles. As far as he knew, the largest natural predator in the entire archipelago was the Galápagos hawk.
The cow moaned and Ramón crouched over her, caressing her flank. Her mouth was sprayed with froth. He noticed that the back of her neck had been attacked, scraped or gnawed through to the thick plate of the scapula. The flesh was ribboned across the wound, glistening with blood and a foreign, clear, viscid liquid that looked like saliva. Ramón reached out and touched the wound, drawing his hand back sharply as pain shot through the cut on his index finger. He wiped the excess blood on his jeans and instinctively put his finger in his mouth to clear the wound. He spit into the grass, a red-lined glob thick with mucus, and rose.
The cow rustled in the grass, her head trembling above the ground. Ramón picked up the ax, again cursing the fact that there were no shells for his shotgun. With a nervous glance at the band of forest into which the large creature had vanished, he raised the ax back over one shoulder and swung downward at the cow's neck.Minutes to Burn. Copyright � by Gregg Hurwitz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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