Parasite

by David Falkinburg

“This potentially means thousands of zombie fungi in tropical forests across the globe await discovery. We need to ramp up sampling—especially given the perilous state of the environment.”

Matt Kaplan. National Geographic. March 3rd 2011.

“On November 18, 2006, the BBC documentary Planet Earth aired the episode ‘Jungles’ on American television. It was the first time the public was exposed to the fungus called Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani, a fungi that infects ants, attacks their central nervous system, and essentially controls their bodily functions until it kills them. The fungus then spreads from an exposed stalk that breaks out of their exoskeleton to fire off its infectious spores. In the years following, scientists moved to investigate this new and mysterious fungus found in several of the world’s jungles.

“In the summer of 2012, a research team out of Penn State University disappeared in the Atlantic rainforest in southern Brazil after outfitting an expedition to chart new types of this species. Search and rescue attempts proved unsuccessful in ascertaining the fate of the research team and two weeks ago they were declared deceased.

“We think they found something in that jungle, something that is worth finding, and that they died with the secrets of a discovery that will change the world. You’re mission is to find them, find out what happened to them, find out what they discovered or what they didn’t discover, and pick up where they left off. I want to know what’s out there because, a week ago, they found a monkey in Thailand that perished as a result of the Macaque strain of the fungus.

“Monkeys aren’t that different from humans, Langland. Find the research team, and bring me answers.”

***

Endless rainforest stretched out in every direction beneath Langland as they flew south. Their helicopter passed through rising fogs of moisture. It was as if the last strands of rainforest were melting away from the earth, or burning, and the smoking steam was proof of it. Langland viewed the greenery from the open door of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter out of Sao Paulo, Brazil. He fastened his M9 in his hip holster after double checking the cartridge. Harden had arranged for Basil, their Senegalese pilot, to fly them into the Atlantic Forest of South America. He spoke English with a heavy accent, and otherwise spoke French. Langland knew a bit of French from his aid work in Africa and had flown with Basil before. They had transported aid workers and organized outfits in the Congo, Sudan, and Somalia for BIOME Enterprises, a corporation whose main export was pharmaceuticals with a focus on the environment and how nature can better human health.

Langland glanced down at the pack strapped to the floor of the helicopter. He could see the cover of Harden’s briefing report on the research team through the plastic protector of his pack. The cover was a clean white with red lettering across the middle with BIOME’s green and black logo at the bottom:

CONFIDENTIAL

Bio Engineering +

Bio Technology +

Bio Diversity = Life.

BIOME.nterprises.

“We are about two klicks from the landing zone,” Basil said over the head set.

“How far is the LZ from Tresler’s last GPS broadcast?” Emmitt said from the passenger seat as he went over a satellite map of their region of the forest. He had written all over it with a red marker.

Emmitt had worked with Langland for the better part of three years. Their fathers had been friends, and had always tried to outdo each other in, what their sons called, the sport of intrepidness. From climbing Everest, to cross ocean sailing treks, to races down the Amazon, their fathers had the spirit of the explorers of the 15th century. There was no feat too dangerous and no thrill that could satisfy them for long.

Langland and Emmitt were the sons of their fathers and worked as rangers for the “uncivilized” third world that had yet to enter the minority of countries that had downloaded into the 21st century. They were guides into the dying, romanticized world of the wild. Although Emmitt was ten years his minor, Langland had taken a liking to him the past three years once Emmitt had gotten all that proud youth out of him at twenty seven and reigned in his pride.

“They took a boat up the river and got off around here, in these foothills. They hiked through this valley, and the beacon’s last transmission was around here.” Langland pointed to the map from memory. He pulled a GPS device from his pack and showed Emmitt a time lapse of the signals. Emmitt scribbled some more.

“You’re killing the rain forest with all your maps,” Ian Pierson put in from the back seat. The four of them had become quite comfortable together after drinks the night before. Ian had a Masters in Entomology and Mycology, with a Ph.D. in Bioengineering from the University of Washington. He was two years deep at BIOME and working as Harden’s understudy. The president loved the kid.

“I like things I can put my hands on,” Emmitt responded, still focused on the map.

“Like that girl from Rio last night?” Ian grinned. Emmitt didn’t respond, but let his famous smirk show. Some attributes were still left over from his untamed youth. Langland smiled.

“I agree with Pierson, it’s time to embrace the twenty first century, Emmitt,”
he said. Emmitt laughed and looked back at him.

“I’m going to tell you what my father always used to tell me. He would say, I didn’t need that when I climbed to the summit of Everest. Or, I didn’t need that when I harpooned a sword fish. Or, my personal favorite, I didn’t need texting or a dating website when I met your mother, you’re proof enough for that.” He laughed.

“So I say to you, I don’t need your fancy equipment, the world has used maps since time began and I am quite content.”

“—But, a GPS is a map,” Ian replied.

“That’s subjective,” Emmitt responded. Langland laughed, Emmitt’s famous comeback, he thought, and peered out to the tree tops once again.

***

They were on the ground. Soil suctioned off the soles of Langland’s boots as he watched the helicopter rise from their landing zone. Within a minute, it was gone, and with it, the constant hum of technology one grew accustomed to living in “civilized” civilization disappeared. Langland loved that. True silence.

“All right, follow me, we don’t stop until sundown,” Langland announced, he tightened the strap to his backpack and set off, from the clearing at the top of the hill, and down the slope into the valley below. Ian watched the helicopter until it disappeared as Emmitt strapped on his packs, fitted his baseball cap, and put on his aviators.

Some hours later they came to a small creek and called a halt to rest in the claustrophobic humidity. Langland downed half his filtered water bottle and rested on a boulder. Broad leaves, ferns, and foliage enveloped the creek and hung over the small river beds. The clear water revealed tadpoles darting through the current.

“How close are we to the last signal?” Langland said after a moment of listening to the birds high in the trees. Emmitt opened his map and looked around.

“We are…” Emmitt trailed off and started to walk through the creek upstream. Langland rolled his eyes and reached for the GPS device fastened to his shoulder strap.

“Ah, ah,” Emmitt said as Langland’s fingers touched the strap, “it’s right up here.” Emmitt began to move up the stream and walked around the foliage, out of view.

“Ian, come on,” Langland said. He started up the side of the creek and turned to look back. Ian was snapping pictures of some poison dart frogs.

“Sorry, sorry. Coming,” he said.

The two caught up with Emmitt who stood in a grove of towering Araucaria trees. The broken sunlight flooded the grove and reflected off the dew of the ferns scattered across the ground.

“It’s here,” Emmitt said as he stepped out into the center of the grove. The distant roar of a waterfall faded in as Langland followed with Ian behind him. The three men began to search for clues of the research team. After ten minutes, Emmitt paused and wiped his brow.

“There is nothing here—“ Emmitt started.

“Wait.” Langland said. He stepped towards a downed tree that had been overrun by the plants of the jungle floor. The width of the trunk rose to his waist and had broken over a boulder that jutted, like an iceberg, out of the ground. Sticking out of a hollow of the tree trunk was a wooden shaft. Langland pried the shaft out of the ground it was stuck in, or what he thought was the ground.

“We have a lead,” he said as he examined the woodworking of the spear. A corpse lie, clutching its punctured stomach, where Langland had removed the spear.

“Yikes,” Ian said as he crouched down next to the body to examine it.

“Locals?” Emmitt asked as Langland handed him the spear shaft.

“I don’t know,” Langland responded, but became distracted when he saw something on the rock.

“The body has been decomposing for at least six months. Male. Late twenties, early thirties and from the decayed skin. I would say he’s not from around here. Anglo Saxon this one, and his garment remains…” Ian trailed off trying to inspect the tattered, filthy clothing that clung to the corpse’s body.

Langland leaned forward over the boulder and stared at what lie petrified on the top of the rock with its mandibles dug into the moss.

“Guys,” he said.

“Yeah, I am going to say that this is one of our research team members out of Penn State,” Ian continued after he searched the body. Emmitt was now next to Langland, both staring at the unique figure upon the moss.

“Ian.”

“He died from internal bleeding from the wound. I found his wallet though. Eric Duncan his name was.”

“Ian.”

“Are there natives around these parts? Was that in the brief—“

“Ian!” Emmitt shouted. The kid jumped.

“Is this it?” Emmitt asked him pointing to the top of the boulder. Ian stood and inspected the ant exoskeleton perched atop the rock. A solitary, pale stem had burst from its skull and now stood rigid in the air.

“Yes, that’s it. The zombie fungus,” he said, scrutinizing it.

“He’s not the only one,” Langland told them as he scanned the tree trunk. The other two men followed Langland’s gaze and found a line of infected ants that had expired long ago. Hundreds of pale stems rose from the wood and moss amongst the corpses of hundreds of ants. They covered the timber and extended to the base of the trunk.

“The whole colony was infected,” Ian observed.

“How? The briefing said they carry infected drones away from the colony,” Emmitt countered.

“Yes they do, but how if they are all infected? One of these suckers must have died and infected this hive.”

“How does it transmit?” Langland asked.

“It’s airborne, when the top of the stem blossoms, it explodes, and blasts spores over the surrounding area. Any ant within the infection radius will be infected if they come into contact with a single spore.”

“I see,” Langland said.

“So, the research team ran into the local tribes it would seem. Any idea of where their village is?” Emmitt asked. Langland glanced up to the sun which was getting around to setting. He gestured for the others to gather around him. He found a tree stump and pulled out a plastic file full of satellite photos.

“Harden warned me this might happen. These photos were taken by Tresler’s team when they surveyed the area prior to the expedition. Part of the reason the search teams were called off was because of the indigenous tribes in this area. The Brazilian government wanted foreigners out of here. Technically, they don’t know we’re here, but here we are. The villages are positioned in three regions. One of them is pretty close to here, to the east. I’ll bet that’s the tribe that offed them.” Langland checked his watch.

“Sundown is at 20:03. We can make it to the village by then and scout things out in the cover of night. I think it’s our best move.” He finished and scrutinized the other two. Ian shifted his weight.

“I don’t know. I’m not really cut out for this,” he said.

“Sure you are kid. That’s why we’ve got Rambo.” Emmitt slapped him on the back and pointed to Langland.

“So where is this village, so I can mark it on my map.”

***

“You’ve got a satellite phone right?” Ian asked Langland an hour after they had set out from the grove.

“Yes, we’ll be fine. If we need to we can radio Basil and he will pick us up.”

“Even in the middle of the night?” Ian asked.

“Even in the middle of the night.” The three pressed on. One klick to the village.

***

The moon was full and there were plenty of stars. They came upon the village and crouched down behind the gnarled root of a massive tree. Fifteen meters away was a circle of huts. Langland extracted his binoculars and switched them to thermal vision. Emmitt unloaded his pack and set it next to Langland’s. Ian watched with apprehension.

“What do you see?” Emmitt whispered.

“No heat.”

“Could they be somewhere else?” Ian whispered.

“Where else would they be?” Emmitt seemed to ask himself along with the others. A howl pierced through the silence of the jungle. The three men flinched and ducked to the ground.

“What the hell was that?” Ian whispered with panic in his voice.

“Shut up and wait,” Langland commanded. He got back up and scanned the village, as well as behind them into the jungle. Nothing.

Birds, insects, and frogs chattered through the night, but the howl didn’t sound again. After a while they were satisfied that the village was empty and that the natives were not coming back, at least for the night. They camped between the gnarled roots of the massive tree. Emmitt and Langland alternated watches for the night until the sun rose.

Around eight, the rangers stepped out onto the grounds of the village. Langland had his M9 drawn. They passed through each hut and found nothing living. They met up with Ian in the center of the ring of huts.

“So, what now?” Ian asked Langland as he approached.

“Yeah, there is absolutely nothing—“ Emmitt started, but his voice was cut off by the shrieking howl from the night before, only this time it was much closer. Langland leveled his firearm and stared down the direction of the inhuman noise. It was silent. Emmitt opened his mouth to say something, but instead, battle shouts bellowed through the air. The primal screaming increased rapidly until it was upon them and the foliage ahead of them began to shake.

“Run! Run!” Langland shouted at the sight of the first native. He shoved Ian forward to get himself between him and the natives. Emmitt was all ready well ahead of them. Langland turned to see how much the natives had gained. Instead, he saw that they weren’t charging, but running as well, screaming in fear of whatever was chasing them. He double timed it into the thick jungle. Our gear, he thought.

Langland broke away from the others and veered off to the side.

“Where are you going?” Ian shouted.

“Our gear!” Langland shouted back. Emmitt kept running forward, but Ian turned and sprinted after Langland.

Langland saw the natives flash through the trees in the direction of Emmitt. They were fast, he thought. He reached the gnarled root where they had set up a little camp and ticked off the essentials in his mind.

Satellite Phone.

GPS device.

Flares.

Ammo.

And then the howl broke the air.

The scream rang his eardrums. Langland cursed and ducked down behind the roots. When he rose to scan the village he spotted a solitary figure standing in the center of the ring of huts. It was a man, wearing what was once white and khaki clothing. A Caucasian man that Langland recognized from somewhere despite his marred face.

“Langland, what is it?” he heard Ian shout from the jungle to his right. Langland remained silent and watched the man. Something wasn’t right, he thought. The man twitched and stood rigid trying to listen, or so Langland thought.

“What is it!?” Ian cried. The man in the village shot his head right at Langland. A picture flashed into Langland’s memory. It was from the briefing. It was the picture of Dr. Robert Tresler. The professor who had led the research team into the Atlantic Forest from Penn State. This was the man standing before him. This was the man they declared deceased two weeks ago after a sixth month search. Langland drew his pistol.

“Ian, run!” he yelled and shouldered the pack he had stuffed the essentials into. He sprinted in the opposite direction of Tresler as the man roared an ear piercing howl they now knew the source of. Ian ran alongside him. Langland glanced over his shoulder to see Tresler pursuing them at a dead sprint.

“Keep going!” Langland roared. The two bolted through the jungle, passing trunks, and leaping over shrubs. Langland splashed through the stream they had crossed earlier and began to run down the bank with Ian right behind him. He reached back, ripped the satellite phone from the side pocket of the backpack, and hit the red emergency button. It dialed.

Langland turned as he ran to gauge their distance from Tresler. The man tumbled out of the foliage and into the stream. He tried to get up, but stumbled, all while snarling at them. Langland fired off a warning shot, from his M9, that completely missed, but would have startled a sane human being. Tresler didn’t even acknowledge the shot and charged. Langland turned back around and rushed after Ian.

They cut back into the jungle to get around an embankment where the stream turned. They sprinted across an open hillside. The satellite phoned beeped. Clear signal.

“This is Basil, over. Langland are you there? What is it? Over” A garbled, French accent, called over the static.

“Basil, we need an emergency extraction, now!”

“Heading to my chopper. Over.”

“We’ll be waiting at the LZ, red, hot, blue, clear. Over.”

“Copy, over.” Langland cut the signal and leapt back into the jungle, from the hillside, over a bush with Ian in front of him.

They ran into the steam again which soon turned into a river that Ian almost barreled into. He caught himself on a tree at the last second and used the momentum to push himself down alongside the bank. Langland turned at the tree and kept after him. He heard a shout and turned his head towards the source. On the opposite bank was Emmitt, shouting and running through foliage and maneuvering through branches. Behind him, were the natives, flinging spears, and screaming.

“Emmitt!” Langland shouted, but he didn’t hear. The roar of the rapids was too loud. They kept with him as the team ran parallel downstream on either bank. A distant roar began to build, which made Langland fear the worst. Soon, he couldn’t see the jungle through the trees, ahead of them. Just the rolling green carpeted hills of the rainforest terrain.

“Ian! Watch yourself!” Langland shouted ahead. Ian came to the cliff first and slowed down. Langland stopped next to him and turned. He brought up his M9, but didn’t see Tresler.

“Did we lose him?” The howl answered Ian. Lumbering down an embankment came Tresler some twenty meters away. Langland eyed the river that rolled over the cliff and down into a pool below. The water was a deep blue.

“We have to jump.”

“What? That’s insane!”

“That’s subjective,” Langland responded, thinking of Emmitt

“Hey!” A shout resounded from across the river. They both looked and saw Emmitt standing atop a boulder that the rapids splashed around just before the waterfall. He leaned over the edge to gauge the drop from a rock that protruded out from the face of the cliff. He looked surprised to see them and pointed behind him towards the oncoming natives. Emmitt made a gesture for them to jump. Langland nodded and held up five fingers.

“There is no way,” Ian protested.

“We have to,” Langland said. The waterfall blasted all around them deafening Tresler’s howl.

“Just shoot him!” Ian shouting watching Tresler approach.

“I can’t, until I am sure he’s gone and then there’s the natives. Now go, jump!” Langland ordered. Ian hesitated. Langland watched Emmitt give them one last look after his countdown from five. He dove over the cliff with a spear following him. Tresler was almost upon them. Langland sealed his pack and seized Ian by the arm. The Ph.D. resisted, but a bulky Langland overpowered him and threw them both over the waterfall. They fell out of sight of the natives and Tresler. The two plummeted down the cliff and into the pool with a splash that made no sound against the waterfall.

***

Langland pulled himself out of the pool and rested against the pebbly shore trying to catch his breath. The impact against the surface of the water knocked the wind out of him, and after all that running—just breathe, he thought. A few minutes later he loosened the pack and dropped it in the ferns. Emmitt was a few meters away staring in silence at the waterfall. Ian was coughing and had a few scrapes from the chase, but was otherwise fine. Langland took account of their supplies and laid them out on a fallen tree trunk. Food rations for three days, water filters tablets, the briefing folder, two knives, a few flares, and two magazines of ammunition, amongst other survival items. The GPS device wouldn’t turn on, but the satellite phone seemed okay. Langland looked to Emmitt and threw him a plastic folder. It was his file of maps.

“And your marker,” he tossed it, “I left the rest of your pack and yours. Wasn’t enough time.”

“The sample kit? The transport containers? My camera? Well, shit,” Ian got up and began to pace, running his hands through his soaked hair.

“What the hell are we supposed to do now? Well, first off, what just happened!”

“Calm down, Ian,” Langland said.

“I’m supposed to calm down? Calm down. Yeah, bull shit! Fucking tribesmen just attacked us! Along with a guy that has been lost in the rainforest for six months. Why didn’t you just blow him away?” My M9, Langland thought. He pulled it out, examined it, and took it apart. He reassembled it, ignoring Ian, and found that it still worked.

“I will, next time. I had to be sure he wasn’t still alive,” Langland said.

“Wasn’t that obvious!” Ian shouted.

“That he was alive? Or dead?” Emmitt asked after gulping down some water.

“I…I don’t know.” Ian sat down, subdued.

“Did anyone get a good look at him?” Emmitt asked.

“I did,” Langland responded, “half his face was missing, but that was Robert Tresler, all right. The professor from the research team.”

“What really?” Emmitt said.

“It was, I recognized him too, now that I think about it. I was too frightened to register it at the time.” Ian told them.

“So what does that mean? Why were the natives running from him,” Emmitt asked.

“Well, if we go with the worst case scenario, which I assume is a good start and accumulate the little, but crucial evidence we’ve found, I think it is quite clear,” Ian said.

“What is quite clear?” Emmitt asked.

“As you said, the briefing explains that ants infected with Ophiocordyceps are carried away by non-infected ants so that it doesn’t spread to the entire colony. Well, we found one of the research team with a spear through his chest. What if the research team found a strain of the fungus that could infect humans and breed the same way as it does in insects? What if the tribesmen all ready knew this and were trying to eliminate the source by killing the research team,” Ian speculated.

“Well, they didn’t get all of them,” Emmitt said.

“How could Tresler survive with the fungus inside him for this long?” Langland asked.

“Well, the whole cycle from infection by airborne spores to death and the release of those spores in insects takes about ten days. So let’s say Tresler survived longer than we previously estimated and was infected. This fungus, of course, must be new to humans, and there is much more tissue for the fungus to consume. Also, our brains are much more complex. Meaning, that a human host would survive exponentially longer and could also possibly retain several cognitive skills that would eventually be under the control of the fungus.”

“That’s impossible. The fungus can control a human brain?” Emmitt said.

“That’s what it does to insects, once it infiltrates the central nervous system. Why is it so hard to believe? There are millions of fungi man has yet to discover, these natives might have known about this for years, but the barriers between our civilizations could have prevented that knowledge form spreading. The sole purpose then, of the host, becomes to spread the fungus, to reproduce. Tresler’s corpse is trying to get to other hosts to spread the virus, and that must be the reason he is after us. Just like the ants.” Ian plopped himself down on a rock as Langland ran his hand through his hair.

“We need to move out and get to the LZ. Basil should be here within the next couple hours. We can decide what to do with this when we get back to Sao Paulo,” Langland said, “and, we need to get a hold of Harden.”

***

The three of them followed Emmitt’s map with the cartographer leading the way. They heard the natives once or twice in the distance. Langland kept his pistol at his side. They came to a ravine where one of the slopes led to the top of the hill where Basil had dropped them off almost twenty four hours before. Langland started up the steep slope and used branches and roots to pull himself up.

“Well, now we know what’s out here,” Emmitt said, hinting sarcasm. Langland laughed aloud.

“Yeah, a variety of things that could kill us in cruel and unusual ways. Not to mention the loss of thousands of dollars of equipment,” Ian replied.

“We’ll get it when we come back with a bigger team,” Emmitt said. His statement made Ian pause.

“Right, a much bigger expedition, a force even. A much, much bigger salary, and most importantly, bigger guns. With people willing to use them.” Ian continued to list the number of things he would require to return. Langland reached the summit and pulled himself onto the flat hilltop. He helped up Emmitt, and let Ian manage on his own. Langland pulled a blue flare from the pack, looked around, and popped it once they reached the center of the clearing.

Billows of blue smoke rose from the jungle, distinct against the greenery. Langland checked his watch.

“Should be here any minute.”

“The sooner the better,” Ian said.

The howl echoed through the jungle. The three men spun around and checked all sides of the hill top, but the blue smoke clouded their vision.

“Where did it come from?” Langland said.

“I don’t know.” It howled again, closer.

“Shit, what’re we going to do!” Ian shouted, panicked.

“Shut up, for starters,” Emmitt responded.

“Yeah, like it hasn’t seen the smoke all ready,” Ian said. Another howl came, closer.

Langland raised his M9. The blue smoke enveloped them. The beating of helicopter propellers came from over the distant hilltops. He heard it, along with his own heartbeat, and the sizzle of the flare. The howl sounded again, only this time with labored grunting. Footfalls. Langland pulled up his firearm and decided to trust his ears.

Then, there was no sound at all. Silence. Until, Ian said,

“Where—“ cut off, a body leapt onto Ian’s back and dug it’s teeth into his neck. Langland identified the assailant as Tresler, aimed, and fired. The bullet impacted right between Tresler’s eyes as he roared, missing his bottom jaw, at Langland. With the impact, Tresler’s head exploded. A meter long white stem flipped out from his neck and flailed in the air like an eel. The end of the flopping pale stem burst, and blasted a yellow mist in all directions that blanketed Emmitt, Langland, and Ian. The force knocked the men to the ground. Langland tried to rise, but was half blinded by the yellow fog. It stung his eyes as he blinked and squinted at Ian who lay lifeless on the ground with Tresler’s corpse vice gripped around him. The pale tentacle flopped on the ground, in place of Tresler’s head, as it seemed to die. Langland passed out to the sound of propellers.

***

When he woke, he was aboard the helicopter, and he couldn’t remember what had occurred. He thought that maybe he had drifted off to sleep on the way to their mission to rescue the research team. That didn’t matter now, though. He had a new mission to accomplish.

“Langland, what happened?” Basil’s voice sounded through the headset Langland discovered he was wearing. He didn’t respond.

“Langland, what happened? That kid, Ian, he’s dead. I left him. What is this yellow mess all over you? Langland, are you listening to me?”

Langland saw his M9 on the floor of the helicopter. He picked it up.

“We’re almost there, you are going to have to start talking. Harden just got on a plane. He’s coming down. You have to tell me what happened.”

When Langland tried to speak, he couldn’t, it felt as if moss had blocked his throat. Instead, a whistling howl came out. Basil’s eyes widened as Langland raised the gun to his face.

“What are—“ The gunshot blew Basil across the windshield of the inside of the Black Hawk. Langland cocked his head and dropped the gun. The back door of the helicopter slid open. Emmitt, or what had been Emmitt, leapt out of the helicopter and plummeted down towards the city below. Langland opened his own door and held on as the helicopter started to spin out of control.

“Spread,” he wheezed and jumped. During his descent, the part of him that was still human screamed, but only an inhuman howl emitted. Langland, the host organism, burst into a million infectious spores that soared through the wind over Sao Paulo, the seventh most populated city in the world.

The End