The near-past: Helena Gustafsson was a crypto-zoologist: a scientist who specialized in the search for legendary or extinct animals. Currently: She is carrion in the dirt of the African veldt.
You can chase away the scavengers, the hyenas and vultures. You can sift and study what evidence remains of the animal that made the kill. You can’t chase away the files though. Or the smell.
“A cat,” Mwami, the local militia man smirks and picks up a piece of the body — her forearm — gesturing to bite marks in the flesh. Steven Anderson grimaces. He’s used to death — but the bomb and bullet kind, not the tooth and claw kind. There is something more primeval about this type of death; ending your life as little more than a satisfactory meal to another animal.
“What kind of cat?”
“A very big cat.”
“Like the kind she’s studying?”
“It ate her?”
“No, it killed her. The eating was mostly done by scavengers, you can tell by the teeth marks. You were her bodyguard?” The militiaman tosses the appendage back among the pile of flesh and motions to his men to scoop the remains into a body bag. “Didn’t do a very good job did you?”
“She’d been warned not to go off by herself.” Anderson picks up his XM8 assault rifle. It’s instinct and general distrust that’s keep him alive while he’s watched other more intelligent and more trusting men (and women) go to their deaths.
“It’s also not a place for Americans,” Mwami replies. “I trust you’ll be leaving soon?”
“I have to make arrangements for the body. Close up her camp. I don’t intend to stay.”
The militia man nods satisfied and returns to the truck with his men. Anderson watches them drive off. He is tired. His eyes lower to the crimson stained ground. A cacophony of noise. Restless animals calling.
Sleep. Even if it wasn’t for the sticky heat of the African night or the fear drenched sweat that awakens him, sleep wouldn’t come easy tonight. Firstly his leg is still a problem. He’d lost muscle and tissue some five years earlier in a mortar attack; a mended fracture that still brings pain. Then there is the guilt he feels for her. Thirdly there is the damn cat. He can hear it stalking and crying in its compound. Does it know she’s dead? It was almost Helena’s pet. What should he do with the cat? Release it? Shoot it? The cat is calling. Does it know she’s gone? Anderson gets up and crosses the compound, avoiding the large wire cage on its perimeter, making his way to her tent.
Rummaging through her belongings he finds Helena’s journal and flips it open at a random page, skimming the words and thoughts of a person now gone.
I hate and despise him. He is an animal.
It stings a bit to read the words. Not because it’s a shock — he knew what she thought of him. It stings because he was beginning to like (care?) for her. I am not an animal. Nor am I descended from one, he thinks, on that you’re wrong. He flicks back pages, mere weeks; her excitement and preparation for the trip, her journey from Europe, and their first meeting.
I hate and despise him. He is an animal. I have never met a more loathsome man. If it wasn’t for the university insisting on retaining the services of a… what do you call him? Bodyguard? Mercenary? His credentials seem in order. He was a decorated sergeant in the US Marines. He’d served in a series of hotspots. Afghanistan. Iraq. He was badly wounded during his last tour of duty and discharged, since then working as a security consultant in the world’s most dangerous places.
I inadvertently insult him the first time we talk. It’s the first week. We’re out at the big cat compound. I try to explain the importance of my work while we feed the black panther.
“This one was shot and wounded near a township where it was bothering livestock. The locals get spooked sometimes. For years there have been reports of a gigantic black cat, bigger than any black leopard, living in the mountains at high altitude. Locals have variously referred to it as the Jaguarete, or Black Tiger.”
I show him photos of the feline thigh bone that caused such a stir when it was discovered in this valley three years earlier. “The animal this bone came from is eleven feet long. It would make this one look like a kitten.”
He studies the images with mild interest. “The species this bone belonged to could be long extinct.”
“That’s what we thought. So we DNA tested it. It belongs to an animal not more than five years dead. If there are any others left I aim to find them.”
He nods and replies in his slow southern drawl. “And this one?”
“This one’s a normal black panther. Actually black panther isn’t a separate species of cat. It refers to any, all—black felines that are large enough to count as a big cat. Science recognizes two types — one is the black color phase of the jaguar, the other like this one is the black leopard. We’ll take it into the mountains and release it when it’s fit enough.”
“In the mountains you hope to find your mythical cat?”
“The mountain and border areas still contain rebels. It’s a dangerous place.”
“That’s why you’re here.”
“I’m just one man though.”
“Sergeant Anderson — how many people have you killed?”
“I don’t really count.”
“Miss Gustafsson — why are a bunch of cats worth getting yourself killed for?”
I meet his eye. “Sergeant — in the developed world the struggle to survive is no longer a great feat for humans, and therefore gene mutations offer little or no competitive edge. Natural selection is likewise a moot point; our ancestors faced significant difficulties and many died before reaching adolescence, therefore those who were fitter and more likely to survive would pass their strong genes on to offspring. Without these two mechanisms working together, evolution for us, has all but stopped.”
He raises an eyebrow and vaguely nods understanding.
“Yet here’s the prospect of finding a new distinct species that’s evolved in isolation in a remote part of Africa. Where it all began. Life. Mankind. Everything.”
“Not me. I didn’t begin here. I didn’t evolve from a damn ape.”
“You don’t believe in evolution?
“No Miss Gustafsson, I don’t. I believe our Lord created us in his image. I’d have to see evidence to believe in evolution.”
“Well there’s evidence! Sergeant Anderson — you’re not stupid. How can you not believe in science but believe in a supernatural deity?”
“Fairy tales,” I stand and regard him in anger and confusion. “Goodnight Sergeant.”
Admittedly it’s not the best idea to make an enemy of someone who’s supposed to be here to protect me. It’s simply unnerving to still find educated people who believe in superstition rather than hard scientific evidence. I think I’ve always had this inquiring mind, this sense of not being satisfied with what I was told. I remember watching the family cat and wondering what made it purr. It’s ok I didn’t dissect Fluffy or anything!
He skips pages. Days flick by in a blur of paper and ink.
The first excursion into the mountains: we’re assisted by local guides, used to tracking animals in the density of the jungle. The big cats are their forte. Humans are his. There are a few times we come upon burnt out camp fires. Or discarded coke bottles. They are a reminder that rebels still operate out of this area. He is a soldier. He understands why. He tells me that the chances of government troops finding them would be remote. It’s easy to blend, to lose yourself here. I know what he means.
He is a good soldier. He stays close to his charge. I know I’m difficult. He does too. He does his job. He doesn’t complain. I think in time, we develop mutual respect, and maybe more. There is a moment: I’m trudging through the undergrowth ahead of the others. He’s having trouble keeping up. I know it’s his leg injury. I don’t slow my pace.
Suddenly, trees part violently, vines and lichens are ripped aside with ease as a mountain gorilla enters the clearing ahead of me. It’s a silverback — a giant — a powerful, primal animal. Instinctively Anderson raises his gun, but I motion “no”, kneel in the grass, and wave him to follow. Anderson obeys orders. The gorilla regards us cautiously; even to Anderson I suspect, all too human and comprehending. Satisfied, no threat exists, the silverback passes us by. I sigh with relief and turn to Anderson cheerily. “Smile. You just met your ancestor!”
He shrugs, brushing me off.
There are no signs of giant cats on the western face and we descend to the camp.
“You’re a violent man Sergeant Anderson.” I know my harsh words catch him unusually off hand. We’re drinking wine and more honest than we’d like to be. At least that’s what I tell myself.
“I’m a soldier,” he replies candidly. “Would you expect less?”
“It’s not your fault,” I explain. “We are all in our way your ancestor’s descendants. The most violent humans in our past, the strongest and most ruthless were those who survived to spread their genes. It’s small wonder our world today is a violent place.”
“You hate humans? You are one. That shows extreme self loathing.”
He was right. “Steven I don’t mean to give you a hard time. We’re just from very different backgrounds and believe very different things.”
“I grew up in a small working class town. The kind Bruce Springsteen sings about. I could work in a steel mill or join the army. There were other choices. I can see that now, but at the time they weren’t presented to me.”
“I grew up in Stockholm…”
I lean forward. Kissing him before I expect it. He’s more surprised than I. I’m surprised when he returns it and it’s softer than thought it would be. I expected his lips to be hard, like granite. Our kisses are lukewarm at first, turning over to a fiery passion. I feel alone in the night.
I know I shouldn’t have done it. Sex with him. I hate myself for it. I have more self loathing than I can contend right now. It was so stupid. So instinctual. I’m not a teenager. I thought I was above that. Beyond that. It’s dark now and I can’t sleep with his scent still lingering tepidly upon my skin. I feel dirty. The cat is crying. I think she is well enough to be released. She deserves to run free with her mythical cousins.
I don’t believe in them now. We’ve searched and found no trace. They’re not there. The bone belonged to the last survivor of an extinct species. It’s all a waste. I’m going for a walk in the jungle to think. I need to clear my thoughts, get the stink off me. My thoughts right now are those of a crazy person.
There is more. Anderson skims the rest, skipping the boring scientific bits from her last entry.
Helena walked into the jungle alone and died. Eaten up by it.
The cat is crying. Can someone shut the cat up? He picks up his assault rifle, leaves her tent and trudges to the cage. Its eyes glinting gold in blackness; face to face with something animal and alien, with the beginning and the end, Anderson lifts the rifle to his shoulder and fires a single precise shot.
The camp is deserted, eerily vacant in the morning sun. The natives fled during the night; abandoning belongings and their last paycheck. Tent flaps ripple in the wind, abandoned human nests. It makes life easier.
There is little else to be done. He visits the township before lunch and arranges the transit of Helena’s remains to the capital, where she can be flown back to Europe. He returns to the camp, disassembling equipment, packing it away for transport.
One more night. At first when Anderson awakens, he’s certain it’s a dream. The kind you awaken, then reawaken from. You know the kind. The cat is crying. It’s as chilling a sound as he’s heard, piercing black in the night. An arthritic pain shoots down his leg as he stands, bringing him to a standstill. He pauses only a moment, reaching for his rifle, exits the tent and strides across the compound. The black panther carcass lies where he shot it, collecting flies and putrefying from the preceding hot African day.
But still the cat is crying. It is coming from the jungle. Anderson knows the man-eater is still out there. Helena’s killer. It is the last loose end. His last duty. It would be sensible to wait for dawn and track it. Yet here it is. Crying in the night. Presenting itself. Anderson makes his way slowly into the undergrowth, treading softly as it progresses into dark jungle. It is near. It is big. Her giant cat? Her mythical cat?
As he walks, paper echoes of her last skimmed journal entry waft through time; crazy thoughts of a mad woman for whom time, everything has stopped.
There is an implication there. If evolution and the ability to improve the species has stopped for humans, evolution conceivably continues for other wild species. Could something out-evolve us? Could something else evolve from an existing species — as we did from apes — something that would in time become more intelligent and more complex and eventually replace us?
It’s a crazy idea… unless…
In a tent the journal is dropping from his hands, unbelieving. He does not need science to explain the world to him, to give him place in the universe or to give his life meaning. He has faith. He doesn’t need to believe. In a dark and cold jungle at night he has his God, his gun and his faith. He doesn’t believe.
Two days ago Helena Gustafsson is dying in this jungle. Something big is attacking her, dismembering her. With teeth and claw and precision. It takes her apart piece by piece like she was a jigsaw puzzle. Something to be removed and scattered. Yet it doesn’t eat her. Most of the consumption was carried out by other jungle scavengers. Hyena. Vulture.
It removes her because she has become a threat and it is violent and strong and wants its place in the world. She is meek and lets be honest — will not inherit the world.
Whispers. Anderson recoils as he hears his name spoken in the darkness. A whirl of motion and pain. Red flecks dust the leaves of the nearby plants. He has lost his gun and his hand with it. He tries to run, but can only limp awkwardly, inferiorly. Tripping, collapsing, he turns and looks up. It stands over him. Black, sleek, shinny. It raises itself, standing majestically on two feet, its hands lethal claws dripping crimson. It is beautiful and clean and new.
Well unless… unless a species were to live in an isolated environment with natural selection acting upon it. Say a cat. Then over generations it evolved slowly into something else. A kind of were-cat if you will. One that walked upright, and so had the use of hands, rudimentary tools and eventually developed or mimicked a language. Then it could truly rival man.
Anderson feels its breath upon his face, hot and fetid, a drip of saliva as it opens its savage mouth, displaying a row of glistening razor teeth. He feels the touch of its claws raking slowly with precision across his abdomen. He hears its voice, low and guttural, as if gargling blood and understands. He opens his eyes and he believes.