Writhing tentacles erupted out of the murky water. Of the six wriggling, squid like arms, two wore dangling wooden crosses with water rotted corpses nailed to them. A head like a vulture trying to birth its own skull from between its eyes emerged from the pulpy mass that seemed to be the thing's body. The monstrosity appeared to be swimming and slithering along the riverbed at the same time; its body large enough to touch the bottom yet spongy enough to float. One tentacle plunged into the water, picked up the sharkodile, and flung it onto shore. The lesser beast smashed through a line of trees before landing with a solid thump. It then scurried off into the jungle, well aware of its place in the food chain.
"Give me a hand," Joyce hollered.
I turned to find her dragging a dead guard to the side of the boat. From behind I heard a sound like a dozen angry barn owls. I decided not to glance back thereby reducing the risk of shitting myself.
Grabbing hold of the guard's arm I asked, "What are we doing?"
Joyce said, "Feeding time."
Grunting, we hoisted the dead man over the side into the river. Joyce immediately jumped to the controls. Pushing the throttle to full she told me to pitch the other two bodies as well. I didn't ask why. I just did as I was told.
I heard a hum, and glanced at the sky. A triangular drone, not unlike the one I saw earlier, hovered above us. Recalling what Joyce told me, I imagined a dim room full of pasty white anime fans drooling over the video feed as this tentacle nightmare tore us to pieces... or worse, fashioned a fresh set of crucifixion charm bracelets. Shaking off such thoughts I focused on dumping chum.
The last body in the drink, I watched as the beast reached the first. Without even pausing the monster picked up the corpse, ripped it in half, then poured the innards into its mouth. Viscera and blood slopped across its face before it downed the halves. It repeated this gruesome process with the other bodies, but after the third helping of dead guard the creature slowed.
For a second I assumed maybe it'd had its fill. The tentacle obscenity then swam face first into a rather large obvious rock. The creature -- I feel certain there's one word or simple term for swam in a disoriented state, though I don't know what it is, maybe I can just slap a couple root words together -- swimman-désorienter. It slammed into another noticeable outcropping. The tentacles sagged, and eventually the monster stopped surging towards us. Instead of advancing it just floated in place, its body occasionally convulsing as if it might puke.
Rounding a bend in the river Joyce asked, "Is it still after us?"
"No," I said.
"I wasn't sure that would work."
"The poison we used on the guards. I didn't think there was enough in their system to kill it, but I felt maybe I could make it sick enough to give up the chase."
Good thinking. I certainly wouldn't've come up with that plan. Maybe with some time, a few calm minutes to assess the situation... and that started to make wonder, or perhaps I should say worry, how much blind luck alone had kept me alive this far. At least Joyce was with me. What's the old saying? Behind every great man is a woman he stole credit from.
She steered the boat to shore. According to Joyce we were already dangerously close to Caliban's territory. We couldn't go back the way we'd come. Shokushu goukan notwithstanding, the Oakland Raiders lurked behind us. Our only option appeared to be taking our chances in the jungle.
We took the guards' weapons, of course, as well as what little extra ammo the trio had, and the one canteen. Then we set off. The instant the jungle closed in around us I realized that for all I'd survived so far I was still trapped. I'd climbed out of the fire just to get back in the frying pan. I needed information.
I asked Joyce, "Has anyone ever gotten out of here?"
She let out a mirthless chuckle, "Not that I know of."
"How long you been here?"
She sighed, "Two, maybe three years. It's hard to say how long I was in the Raider's camp."
"But you weren't always their prisoner."
"I wouldn't call myself a prisoner. More like a plaything. But yeah, I wasn't always there." I started to ask more, and she cut me off, "Look, everything I've heard and learned has only amounted to one reality. Survive or die, those are the only options."
I felt a real need for whiskey, "Sounds grim."
Joyce said, "I'm just saying you'll go insane hoping to escape this. I've seen it."
The sound of her voice, the utter defeat when she said that last part told me to change the subject.
"You ever hear the song Detachable Penis?"
I've been camping a few times in my life, but for all the sense of wilderness such trips may have inspired, they're safe. It's a manufactured wild with obvious trails to prevent getting lost. If things get weird, with animals or other campers, a person can either call for a ranger or just pack up and leave. Civilization is always a few minutes away. Fuck-all I had full cell phone service the last time I went camping. So I feel safe saying nothing compares to real wilderness.
Blame it on our circumstances, but every sound felt hostile, especially bird calls. The vegetation did nothing to alleviate the sense of menace. In addition to cutting off visibility, it provided hiding places in every direction. When I met Nigel we were in an area relatively spaced out and clear. In the middle of the jungle the plants grew thick enough to be nearly impenetrable walls. And on occasion I felt sure vines tried to grab hold on purpose. We walked for a few hours, but I swear it felt like a thousand year death march.
The humidity got so thick it kept our sweat from evaporating, preventing the natural cooling process -- the little good that would've done anyway. In a matter of minutes the two of us looked as if we'd taken a dip in the river. At one point I collapsed from the heat.
Joyce poured a little water on my head. She got me back on my feet by telling me Caliban's followers were notorious for patrolling the riverbanks keeping an eye out for potential gifts, stray people they could offer to their leader. Joyce didn't doubt for a second we'd been spotted escaping. She even went so far as to say:
"Why do I think I landed us on this side of the river?"
"You saw something."
"Three of them."
"Maybe they weren't Caliban's."
"Faces painted like skulls. They're Caliban's."
"Think they swam across?"
She shook her head, "No one is that crazy."
I got to my feet. It was only a matter of time before Caliban's people were combing the jungle in search of us. So we kept on until sunset.
While Joyce built a small fire she said, "Traveling at night is too risky."
"Forget about the risk. I need to rest." I laid down using a rock as the best pillow ever. No sarcasm. You get tired enough it's amazing what becomes comfortable. I tried not to think about how tomorrow we'd have to resume the death march. For now I just wanted to sink into sleep. It took all of a nanosecond for me to pass out.
I awoke to the sensation of a large thick hose being dragged slowly across my chest. Popping open an eye I saw the circular scaly body of a python slithering over me.
"That seems about right," I said to myself. The snake slithered away, and I have to admit, I've never felt better about being ignored. That said, the second the tail disappeared into the brush I jumped to my feet, shivering in what can only be called an extreme attack of the willies.
Settling down, I looked around and couldn't find Joyce. Panic griped me. Images of lunatics in skull face paint flooded my head. I saw Caliban's followers sweeping through our camp like tropical ninjas, snatching Joyce in her sleep. Suspecting they left me as part of some fiendish cat and mouse game I hesitantly turned my eyes up into the trees. I expected to find a dozen maniacs waiting to pounce.
Instead I saw Joyce asleep in the branches of a mangrove tree. I made a mental note to do the same in the future. She looked so peaceful I hated the fact she'd have to wake up at some point. Dreams seemed to be our only escape from reality. Yet, I refused to accept that.
Above the canopy I heard the low hum signaling a passing camera drone, and a plan started to form.
Part 9: It's Not a Bad Plan Just Because Someone Died.