( 2000) by KAIN MASSIN


The man was lying peacefully in a sun-drenched clearing. Insects buzzed lazily in the sub-tropical humidity, fat and slow and warm, but he showed no signs of minding. He lay on his back, legs outstretched and arms flung wide, head back so that he could gaze up at the blue sliver of sky beyond the canopy of trees.

The group of bushwalkers was reluctant to continue on the track which skirted the clearing, not wanting to disturb his contact with nature, but they had a long way to go before they could make it to the waiting cars, so they elected to walk past quietly. Their initial approach was quiet, and they were pleased to note that he stayed undisturbed.

As they passed the clearing, one of them stopped, then gagged, and the others also saw the obscene spray of red on his chest and abdomen, and realised that no amount of noise could have disturbed him any more.

Cautiously, some of them left the path and entered the clearing, leaving the others whispering together in a nervous huddle.

"What was that?" This was from the one closest to the body. He stopped moving and stared intently into the dense wall of ferns and bushes. There was a shifting darkness there, shadows inside shadows, their nature changing as a slight breeze stroked the leaves and fronds.

He was certain that he heard a sound, soft and low, like a deep hiss, but it could have been the rustling of leaves. A cautious drawing away, further into the bush, and everything was still.

Shaking his head uncertainly, he looked down at the shredded torso near his feet.

Peter Ridgeway leaned out of the helicopter’s open doorway, and was immediately buffeted by the downdraft from the counter-rotating rotors. The shock made him look down and vertigo overwhelmed him. Not far below, he could see the tops of trees, their dense canopy shuddering in the wind. As the branches swayed, he caught glimpses of what lay below, and it was not the ground, as he’d hoped; that was too far down, so far that he could only see darkness. He grabbed at the doorframe.

"It’s okay," the winch operator shouted in his ear, "just close your eyes and step out. I’ll put you down gently as a feather. You won’t even know you’re down."

Of course not: I’ll die from shock on the way down.

Ridgeway nodded, grasped the straps of his harness and stepped out. The wind clutched at his clothing, hair, skin, everything. He started to spin.

"Spread your arms and legs," the operator shouted, sticking out his own arms.

Ridgeway nodded and tightened his grip on his harness. The spinning grew faster and he had to close his eyes to stop being nauseated. The force of the wind decreased so suddenly that he dared to cautiously open his eyes. He was below the canopy and moving down smoothly. Within moments, the sound of the helicopter receded to a dull fwupping, and he felt safer.

Branches slid past him, the air grew more humid and he felt perspiration on his face. Fern fronds rushed up to meet him, then moved up to the sky, turning into black silhouettes. The odd water droplet fell onto his skin. The light grew dim, and continued to fade.

He dropped through another layer of fronds and leaves, and the ground slammed into his feet. He staggered at the suddenness of the contact and fell to his knees, holding on to the harness with unnecessary desperation. Gasping, he looked around. Tall ferns blocked most of his view, their huge fronds spread out to catch what little light filtered down through the canopy above. Ridgeway blinked sweat from his eyes and strained to see more, but the shade was too dense.

"Get out of the harness!" Mark Higgins’ voice was unnaturally loud, and Ridgeway gasped once more. Heavy steps sounded behind him and big hands punched the release on the harness. "Okay," Higgins shouted into his satellite phone. "He’s down. You’re free. What? No, give us tomorrow to set up camp. Come back the day after. Yeah, see you." He put the phone into its cradle and laid a hand on Ridgeway’s shoulder. "Come on, mate. We’ve got a lot of unpacking to do." He walked off. Within a few steps, the foliage had swallowed him. Ridgeway had to strain his ears to hear Higgins’ footsteps.

Ridgeway waited until the sling rose through the first layer of fronds before standing. The trees formed a ceiling that barely transmitted sunlight. By concentrating, he could just make out the silhouette of the helicopter through the foliage. It slid to one side, and he lost the sound.

Lost nearly all sound, actually.

Perhaps the helicopter had scared off other animals, or perhaps his ears needed to adjust, but he found the silence disturbing. As he waited, the sounds returned. There was the scraping of fronds on rough bark, the drip of water from leaf to leaf, and the rare flutter of bird wings. Gratified, he turned towards Higgins and the packs.


He stopped. That had sounded like the helicopter. He looked up, straining to see through the branches.


This time, it seemed to come from the forest. He peered into the darkness, but the sound did not come again.

"Must be a trick of this valley," he muttered, still studying the darkness around him. Silence had again fallen, and he felt alone. With a growing concern, he realised that he could barely see five metres around himself. Anything could be out there, mere paces away, and he wouldn’t be able to see it.


(story continues)