There were no roads up here. Just a sea of sweating blue-green fronds and gnarled roots, drooping vines and crooked branches that wove like latticework beneath the jungle canopy, blocking out the rays of the midday sun. Clouds of insects chittered and buzzed, feeding on mounds of moist biomass, rodent carcasses and mulch, sucking nectar from a world of rainbow-colored blossoms that speckled the emergents like jewels. Ghostly patches of white fog drifted lazily along the ground, probing into burrows and swirling around tree trunks. Epiphytes clung to glistening rock and mossy bark, stretching skyward with jade fingers. The chirps of birds and croaks of tree frogs sang a backing refrain among the more distracting screams and whoops of Bonobos playing in the distance. And somewhere in the darkness of this wet, hot, expansive jungle, a large predatory cat roared in hunger.
Janet Beaudette ignored the cat’s warning; it was too far away to be an issue. At least she chose to believe that. She checked the thermometer inside her Jeep as she wiped her brow with a hand towel, tossed it into the back seat where it fell over a backpack full of TNT blasting caps. It was ninety-one degrees in the jungle; the humidity made it feel like this world existed at the bottom of a hot tub. She unscrewed the top of her water bottle, chugged down a lukewarm mouthful, and swatted an insect away from her ear. The water may as well have been hot tea for all it cooled her down. She stepped out of the Jeep and moved toward a large rock wall overgrown with lianas; the ropy vines were an out-of-control circulatory system snaking their way over just about everything in this land of lost time.
It had taken three days of slow travel to get up here with the Jeeps. They’d blown two tires and lost a muffler. She knew, as did everyone who ventured into these jungles, that only the local militias had the skills to drive their Jeeps up into these mountains without getting stuck in a bog or wedged between the trees. How they did it was a mystery. The untrained human eye could not discern safe ground through the lush green fronds that blanketed everything. Sink holes and poisonous snakes were just the tip of the iceberg for anyone stepping where they shouldn’t.
Three damn days.
The day laborers, cheerful Pygmies hired from local villages, had walked slowly in front of the vehicles, cutting down roots and bushes with their machetes and axes, blazing a trail for the vehicles. How they’d maintained their spirits in the stink and stick of such humid air, singing and laughing as they sliced through the flora like they were at some goddamned party, was a mystery to Janet. It had taken so damn long to get up here the fuel reserves were almost gone.
She stretched now, feeling a dull ache in her lower back, the result of bouncing over rocks and felled logs in that damn vehicle. She just wanted to get the work started, get the camp set up and clear a landing circle so she could radio in for the helicopters and supplies. She wanted to take a nap.
“We’re ready to blow it.” The deep baritone voice startled her.
She turned and found Antoine Gellis behind her, his rough ebony face an oil puddle of perspiration. Gellis was different from the other hired hands, a laboring miner from the Wild East, his giant stature as much a mystery to Janet as his ability to speak French, English, Bantu and a host of other Pygmy languages. The yellow scar on his chin, a common feature for many of the locals in this hell hole of a country, was as thick as a vein and as hard as a tendon. Years of civil war and rebel fighting had marred the people of the Wild East as much as the land. His elephantine muscles rolled ever so slightly beneath his button down work shirt, which was stained dark with sweat. That he was formidable made him a good choice to manage the other workers—she had watched him admonishing one just a few moments ago, and had seen fear in the man’s eyes—but Janet suspected his past may be drenched in rebel blood. He was not to be trusted.
“The charges have been checked?” she asked. “We only brought so many. Don’t waste them.”
Gellis nodded, pointing through the mist and trees to the cliff wall before them. Explosives had been placed strategically around a long, jagged crack that led to what was believed to be a natural mine in the belly of the mountain. The Beaudette Mining scouting team had located it two weeks ago using sonar and x-ray technology to map out the mineral veins inside. Janet’s father had hustled to get the crew out here, racing against time and rival mining companies to claim the speculative load hiding inside. Get in, suck the vein dry, get out, and celebrate at a hideaway in the Bahamas. That was his mission. A mission he’d now entrusted to Janet.
“Just awaiting your command, miss.” Gellis stared at her with a hint of defiance. Native women did not have power in the Congo, and even though Janet was Caucasian and raised in the wealthy social circles of South Africa’s business elite, it surely was against Gellis’ upbringing to take orders from her, even if he was smart enough to understand how well he was being paid for it. He broke the tension with a smile, let out a quick laugh. “Relax, we have blown rocks in these mountains before. It will be fine.”
“I know it will,” Janet said, “I’ve done this before too. Probably more than you.”
“But you looked concerned.”
“Just annoyed. I hate this humidity, feel like I can backstroke through the air. We’re so high up I can barely breathe. And I don’t feel like sleeping outside in this shit.” She swatted another mosquito off her neck, wiped the blood on her shorts. “If the camp isn’t finished being erected by the time that sun goes down I’m going to have you all fired.” Reiterating her position was a constant necessity. She was in charge here. They were her workers. Daddy’s goons may have hired these local beasts of burden but he wasn’t here. She was.
“I will tell my men to hurry with the troop tents. I think they have procrastinated in case there is nothing in that crack. They do not want to set up only to break down again.”
“My scout team said the river goes through these mountains. They don’t get things wrong.” She didn’t go on to tell him about the gold deposits that had been found in the river basins some two-thousand and five hundred feet below. If the small bits of gold found down there were any indication, there was a massive deposit up here slowly being eroded by the inner mountain falls. “Okay,” she said, absentmindedly fingering the small revolver on her hip, a precaution she’d insisted on, “let’s fucking do it already.”
“Charges ready!” Antoine yelled. He raised his hands and signaled to his men. “On my command.”
The group of indigenous workers scurried to their positions.
“Mind your head,” Antoine said to Janet, tapping his hard hat to signify the potential of flying rocks.
Janet ignored him, stepped away from the rock wall to find a safe place from which to watch. Her hard hat was in the Jeep. Screw it. She hated how it squeezed her head.
A minute later there was a controlled explosion that shot rocks like bullets out over the sloping side of the mountain, and shook the surrounding trees hard enough to send leaves and bugs cascading to the ground. Birds took flight in waves of panic and several larger animals, hidden among the bushes and tree trunks, took off running through the dense foliage, cracking fallen limbs in their path.
A cloud of smoke and dust rose into the canopy above as the rock face crumbled into small boulders. As the dust began to settle, the workers, all of them pulled from their shanty towns with promises of wealth, began to clear the area in front of what was a newly-formed cave entrance. They sang as they worked, a creepy kind of happiness that made Janet feel uneasy. People shouldn’t be so happy to move rocks.
Her eyes widened as she inspected the new fissure and noticed how the sunlight made the rock walls twinkle. The rush of new fortune rumbled deep in her belly. If there was gold in there, her father’s company would profit beyond imagination.
The workers moved quickly, sending rocks hand-over-hand to the far side of the camp. When the path was clear, she waved the workers away. “Let me check. Move.” She yanked her floating lantern from the Jeep and entered the darkness. Water dripped off the sides of the walls; a coolness caressed her bare skin, a blissful change from the sticky humidity outside. She took another step, crunching her work boots over the broken rock and beetles too slow to get out of the way. The light revealed a long tunnel that stretched forward for many yards, running like a black underpass through the heart of the mountain.
She backed out into the jungle again and motioned for Gellis. “C’mere.”
Gellis drew up beside her with his own lantern. “Is it what you expected?”
“It’s a path. It goes somewhere. If there are underground waterways in there then I think we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. Get some men and have them go in and mark any points that need retrofitting, and set up a feasible way to get about. Lights, rope handrails, whatever. And note that myself and Mr. Winston’s team will be watching all of you.”
Gellis scratched the yellow scar on his chin. “So untrusting, you white women. You think we want your gold and silver. What would we do with it? Sell it? It would be taken from us the minute we show it to anyone. We’d be locked up and beaten as thieves. I am here for my meager pay, for my family, to put food on their table. As are these other men. Believe me, Madam, we don’t want what’s inside this mountain. We will get it for you, and then you pay us, and then we all go home. Everyone is happy. Status quo, yes?”
Janet noticed again how massively built Gellis was, and did not care for his tone. She stood firm, watching his movements, knowing that to show fear would be a detriment. All of these workers knew the jungle far better than she did, better than her security team did. It would be no problem for them to snap her neck, slink away with the gold and leave her for dead.
“But now is the time to work, Madam.” Gellis smiled once again, quelling any impositions, and called for his men to get their ropes and climbing gear. The Beaudette Mining Company had provided state of the art gear for the workers, but these locals preferred their own liana-woven ropes and harnesses. Most of it looked unstable, but apparently it worked for them.
Janet strode back to her Jeep where Marlon Winston and his four armed security men were snacking on beef jerky and petting their semi automatic rifles as if they were lap dogs.
She climbed into the front seat next to Winston.
“Look good?” he asked, his South African accent dry and humorless. He and his men were dressed in black jungle cottons.
“Looks like Dad might be right. There’s probably a bloody shit ton of gold in there.”
The cat’s roar lifted from the low side of the mountain, closer now, deep and guttural, like icebergs rubbing together. Both Janet and Winston looked out over the nearby cliff, studied the never ending stretch of treetops and jagged rock faces for miles and miles.
“Panther, maybe.” Winston said. “Sounds hungry.” The other security men lifted their rifles in response.
“I hate this jungle,” Janet said. “I feel like I’m being watched.”
“Trust me, we are.”
“I told the men to get the camp erected but these fucking lazy midgets take their sweet ass time with everything. Should have hired professionals.”
“And why didn’t you?”
“You know why, Marlon. Because this gold is ours. Because professionals means paper trails. We go through proper channels and some militant general who rapes and murders his way into office comes in and takes our find.”
Marlon laughed. “It’s the Congo, dear. Everyone just takes what they want. That is the way.”
Gellis’ men began to enter the dark cave, tethered to a line connected to pylons outside. They moved slowly, their lanterns out in front of them, singing a soft song as they went. Janet watched until the lights disappeared in the darkness and their voices were mere whispers.
“So far so good,” she said.
Winston snatched a fly out of midair, crushed it in his fist. “They are a brave lot, these tiny worker ants.”
She grabbed the SATphone from the back of the Jeep and started to dial in her father’s number. He’d be happy to hear they’d found a viable way into the mountain. He would want to—
The jungle floor rose up and slammed back down with a protesting boom. The Jeep lurched beneath her and the phone fell from her hand. She was thrown fiercely backward into the seat, her shoulders popping as they took her weight. Marlon grabbed the rollbar to steady himself, his rifle nearly flipping up and hitting him in the face. The men standing around the vehicle fell to the ground as if their legs had been kicked out from under them. A tree came crashing down just behind the Jeep, nearly squashing a handful of workers moving gear to the half-erected troop tents. Rock and decaying leaves spit up from the ground like tiny geysers as the entire mountain shifted.
Then all was calm again. The dust settled, the last leaf whirlygigged to the floor.
“What the bloody fuck was that?” Janet asked, tentatively stepping out of the Jeep. She fingered a new cut on her temple. “Felt like an earthquake.” She yelled to whoever would listen. “Check everything! Make sure it didn’t ruin the equipment!” Then, back to Winston: “That’s all we need, to wait for a new shipment of gear.”
Winston shouldered his weapon and ordered his men to keep watch of the perimeter. They brushed fresh dirt off their clothes as they scanned the woods, as if they might see any forthcoming aftershocks.
Gellis, who’d clung to a tree for stability, ran to the cave mouth and yelled into the darkness. He spoke a combination of Pygmy and French but Janet couldn’t make any sense of it. Whatever he yelled got no reply from within. Frustrated, he turned from the cave and came running up to her. “Ma’am, I fear the inside of the mountain has collapsed.”
“Is that bad? We’re not gonna fall into the ground are we?”
“Doubtful. But my men might be hurt. They don’t respond. I need to go in and see.”
“Fine by me. But if that vein is closed we’re going to need to open it again.”
“If my friends are hurt I need to get them back down the mountain to a doctor. I told you we don’t care about your gold.”
“Well I care about the gold. My priority is not your friends but what’s inside those veins. We have medical supplies here.”
“And if they are dead?” His lips were tight. He was angry.
Winston raised his gun, fingered the trigger. “Back up, pal. If they’re dead we’ll deal with it. Listen to your boss and get in there with more men to see if the vein collapsed. If it did, you open it first and then we’ll figure out what to do with any corpses.”
Gellis stared at the gun, then finally walked away and gathered more workers, all of whom were still a bit dazed from the earth’s shock.
Janet watched as meager clouds of dust rose up from small cracks in the moss-covered mountaintop some thirty feet above her. Gellis was doing his best to convince one of the smaller Pygmies to enter the cave but the man was shaking his head no. All the men looked scared now. The trees on top of the rock wall were still shaking. That was weird. Possibly an aftershock coming from the cave, she thought. The shaking grew wilder now. It almost looked like someone was trying to drive a vehicle around up there and was slamming into things.
Gellis continued to urge the man but the worker was refusing to move. Lazy bastards, Janet thought.
So now what, she wondered. Was the vein closed off? Was all this work for naught? She supposed it was better that it had shifted and settled now rather than later, when she herself might have been inside. And, if there was a silver lining, it might have even opened up more tunnels and—
She heard a sudden rush of air.
Something large and black shot out from the cave entrance and grabbed the small, obstinate worker, speeding like a bullet into the nearby jungle growth, not far from the Jeeps. It happened so fast Janet couldn’t see what it was.
Everyone stood still, stunned. Confused. Gellis was alone now, eyes wide.
“What the hell was that!” Winston shouted. He shouldered his gun and cocked it.
Where had it gone? Janet spun around, looking for it. The fronds and bushes to her right suddenly shook with a fierceness that sent chills up her spine. A torrent of blood arced up from the bushes and hit the treetop. The worker’s horrifying screams rose into the air before cutting off with chokes and gurgles.
“The fuck is going on!” This from one of Winston’s men.
“Get in there and get it!” Winston yelled, finally flicking the safety off his gun.
Janet pulled her own pistol, imagining a large black Jaguar emerging any second now with a small pygmy worker’s head in its jaws. She should have been concerned about that cat after all.
As the security guards inched toward the bushes, which were now eerily still, another Pygmy worker near the cave entrance screamed. Janet and all five security men swung their guns toward the blood-curdling cry.
They all froze in shock.
Sitting on top of the mountain, just above the new cave entrance, were several black animals that defied all rational explanation.
One of them shifted forward a few feet with such speed it looked like it simply skipped ahead in time. It reared back, lifting two long, hairy, segmented front legs into the air as if it were praying.
And now, without a doubt, Janet knew what they were.
The size of cars.
Their shiny, bowling ball black eyes were void of emotion, betraying nothing but a primal need to kill. Janet could see the panicked men reflected in those dark orbs.
A member of the security team screamed, fired his weapon, catching the rearing spider in its flat face, exploding dark green ooze from its eyes.
But all that did was make things worse. The jarred spiders leapt from the top of the rock wall, sailing high and fast and with such precision that the men they’d chosen as prey could not even turn to run before giant hairy legs were engulfing them in hugs of death.
Venomous fangs tore into dark sweaty flesh as the spiders yanked their food into the trees and disappeared back into the shadows.
Janet was only now aware of the cacophony of sub machine guns firing past her head, dampening the horrid screams of men being eaten alive by monsters that were too large to be real.
Someone grabbed her shoulder. It was Gellis. “This way! Run!”
Without thought she grabbed her backpack from the Jeep. She stooped to grab the SATphone from the ground but Gellis shoved her forward.
“Into the cave! Hurry!”
“Forget it! Go!”
She broke free from Gellis, reached for the phone but jumped back in shock. A sailing spider appeared out of her periphery and landed on it, right in front of her. Its legs went up above its head in a war dance, palps twitching rapidly, ready to strike. Its fangs opened like giant wire cutters.
Instead of lunging it flipped backwards as bullets tore into its thorax. Winston kept firing, racing toward it, gunstock secured against his shoulder, sending another volley into its belly, making sure it was dead.
She looked back down. The phone was gone. Kicked away when the spider had jumped on it.
Then she was up again, being dragged by Gellis. “Hurry!”
A pygmy worker was tackled beside her, hairy legs wrapping tightly around him as he screamed into the black bulbous eyes sealing his fate. The man reached up and got a fistful of Janet’s shirt, trying to save himself but instead pulling her toward the monstrosity that held him.
“Let go!” She slapped at his hands, fighting to free herself from his gripping fingers. One of the mighty arachnid’s legs stepped on her thigh. It weighed as much as a man and the hairs on the tip stabbed through her safari shorts and pierced her skin. The worker thrashed to get free, but the fangs came down and stabbed home through his neck and his blood shot out in spurts, coating Janet’s face.
The man’s death grip on her shirt went slack and she rolled free.
She found her legs now, started to run, had only a second to see Winston following her and Gellis toward the cave entrance, firing his weapon as dozens more of the giant spiders scurried over the rock face and leapt at the myriad workers running in panic. She turned back as the coolness of the cave swept over her, looking again for the SATphone. Winston crouched in front of her, just inside the cave entrance, his gun rocking him back and forth as he fired into the madness unfolding outside.
With a rush, one of the giant spiders flew out of the melee and fired itself at the cave entrance, legs splayed out. Winston unloaded his weapon, caught the monster in mid leap with a volley of rounds that sent it crashing into the rock outside the cave, its legs falling over the entrance like prison bars.
Through those legs Janet watched as the giant black and brown spiders leapt from worker to worker, jumping with such lightning speed they were nothing but massive dark blurs. As they leapt they left cables of silk web in their wake. It covered most of the ground and vehicles, as well as a couple of tents that remained half completed.
“What the fuck are these things?” Winston yelled, checking his magazine and finding that he was out of bullets. “Where did they come from?”
Janet searched her pockets for her cell phone. “Call Dad. Gotta get help.”
“Give me this.” Winston grabbed her pistol from its holster. He checked the rounds. Six shots. He looked at Gellis, whose ebony face was all but lost in the darkness of the cave. Outside, men continued to scream as the giant black spiders tackled them and dragged them into the trees. “What did you do?”
“I did nothing, sir. I have never seen such monsters.”
“Shit. My cellphone’s not here,” Janet said. “I think it’s in the Jeep.”
“Forget it. There’s no service here.” Winston began scooting them farther into the cave. “Move back. Go. You’re not going out there. C’mon. Move. We need to find a place to hide.”
Janet opened her hip pack to search for her phone, in hopes she had absentmindedly put it inside. In the darkness she couldn’t see the little bits of useless materials the pack held, but it was pointless; she didn’t feel her phone anywhere amongst its contents.
“Hold up.” Gellis was behind her, deepest in the tunnel of the mountain entrance now. He was the only one wearing a hardhat and he switched on the light affixed to the front of it. “There is a slope here. It looks steep. We must be careful.”
Janet turned and saw the dropoff. She could hear the water running down its sides, down toward the gold. They would need ropes to get down it without breaking their legs.
Gellis suddenly looked up past her, shocked, thrusting his hand out toward Winston. “No!”
Janet turned back in time to see Winston get ripped from the cave by a collection of hairy legs wrapped around his head. The security chief fired the pistol aimlessly in panic, the bullets zipping around Janet and Gellis, as he was drawn out into the open afternoon jungle heat and engulfed in a furry spider embrace, fangs already coming down on his shoulders.
With an immediate long jump, another black spider was outside the fissure’s entrance, spinning, seeing them inside, scrambling forward in a mad dash to eat.
“Go away!” Janet cried. “Just go away!”
The spider raced forward, getting its two forelegs in first, then folding the others in near its body to fit through the crack.
“Just leave me alone!” Janet’s fist closed around something in her pack. It felt like a long tube. She drew it out to throw it at the creature but Gellis grabbed it from her hand.
“No. Don’t throw it. Shoot it.”
The spider lurched forward, its head inside the cave, struggling to get further in. Janet pushed back into Gellis’ chest, trying to hide inside his frame.
“Look out.” Gellis pulled the string on the distress flare. A sudden flash of red blinded Janet as the fiery projectile shot out at the enormous spider. The beast jumped back out into the open as the flare hummed by its huge black body.
The next thing Janet knew she was sliding backwards down a long slope, wrapped tightly in Gellis’ arms.