After a long, arduous climb, Doctor Michael Miskulin and Professor Susan Yamada finally came to the top of Caracamuni tepui, island of stone floating among clouds. Scores of the remote and inaccessible tepuis clustered where Brazil, Venezuela, and Guiana met. Tablelands perched atop vertical rockfaces hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet high, many of them remained unexplored. Most were home to plants and creatures endemic to a particular tepui—found only on that cloud-mesa and nowhere else on earth.
Yamada and Miskulin had left the half dozen hired porters of their expedition below the clouds and made the ascent by themselves. Alone together in the drifting fog and drizzle atop Caracamuni, amid the nearly two-billion-year-old ruins of ancient geology, Michael and Susan found themselves in a solitude sanctified by isolation in both time and space.
Crossing the high plateau the previous afternoon, Susan collected what she was sure were several sundews, pitcher plants, and assorted bromeliads previously unknown to science. She also identified what appeared to be an endemic clawed frog, a creature unable to swim. If it followed the same evolutionary history of clawed frogs on other tepuis, its kind had lived here since before the continents broke apart, and came together, and broke apart again.
“This place is incredible!” she said over a campstove dinner in their tent the previous evening. “I’ve heard of tepuis before, but being here is different from what I expected, or even imagined.”
“I know what you mean. It’s a lot chillier, for one thing. Especially after the heat of the sabana and the rain forest.”
“No, that’s not it. I mean, to be told there are places where the precip is so persistent it drives the nutrients from the earth—and creates a desert caused by rain—that’s one thing. But to be hiking across a raindesert island dotted with swampy little Edens full of carnivorous plants—that’s a whole different story.”
Michael nodded but said nothing. Later, however, once he was asleep in his mummy bag, the day’s experiences shaped his dreams.
His nocturnal travels were as full of ancient stone black with endless drizzle as his gray daylight hours had been. Fog, rain, algae, and fungus shaped rocks into the columns and arches of a mean- dering dreamcity, a labyrinth of stone clouds hiding furtive people whose runneled faces and bodies were covered with lichens and mosses. . . .
The rain had stopped by the time he woke this morning. Outside their tent, the myriad soft-hard shapes of the eroded maze still stood about them—a dreamscape refusing to disappear upon waking. Already up and busy, Susan crouched in the midst of that landscape, packing her specimens. Michael stepped out into morning sunlight broken by high cloud. Susan stood and stretched, turning around and taking it all in.
“Even if your aunt’s crazy stories about ‘ghost people’ turn out to be totally delusional,” she said, “I’m still glad we made this little expedition.”
“And that my uncle paid for it,” Michael said, out of her sightline and urinating behind a boulder.
As he finished up, he stared absently at the surface of the rock before him, until it caught his attention more fully. Half a dozen types of lichens and mosses overlapped one another, and the underlying rock substrate, too—yielding a fractal frenzy of red ochre, yellow, white, slate blue, dark green, and black.
Doctor Rorshach, meet Jackson Pollack, he thought. He tried to remember what the splotchy palette reminded him of. Then, as he zipped up, it hit him: the encrusted stone looked almost exactly like the false-color satellite image his uncle had shown them of this very tepui viewed from space—right down to the cleft or abyss bisecting the labyrinth top into two convoluted hemispheres.
At the bottom of that midline depression were supposed to lie cloudforest and the entrances to a large cave inside Caracamuni, the home of the ghost people, if his aunt’s stories held any truth.
“ ‘Ghost people’ probably isn’t what they call themselves,” he said, helping Susan break camp. “If they really exist at all. That’s what the Pemon down on the plains below call them.”
“ ‘Spirit people,’ ‘ghost people,’ ‘sky people,’ ” Susan said, nodding. “ ‘Mawari’ or ‘Mawariton,’ too. I did my research, you know. That’s why I think they’re mythical.”
“A reclusive tribe rumored to live on nothing but mushrooms and insects? Come on, Michael. That sounds like faeries or menehune, to me. ‘Magical folk who peopled the land in days of yore.’ ”
Michael only grunted as he worked to smash the tent fabric into a stuff sack that always seemed too small for what it was intended to hold.
“It’d be great if they actually existed,” Susan said. “A great ethno- botanical find, at the least. But I doubt they have much basis in fact—Pemon myths and your aunt’s stories notwithstanding.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Michael said, shrugging into his backpack and helping Susan on with hers.
Hiking under the broken sky of high cloud, he found the walk at least a bit warmer and drier than the drizzle that had prevailed the previous day. As he watched his feet move over the uneven ground, he found his thoughts drifting back to before they left the north.
Back home, he, too, had found the Mawari history—and his family’s connection with it—improbable, if not outright crazy. There might be an occasional tribe somewhere in the deep backcountry still waiting to be discovered, but all the blank spaces had long since been more or less eliminated from the map. Or so he had believed.
Yet his aunt Jacinta had claimed to her brother Paul that she had discovered the people whose existence formed the basis of the Pemon legends of sky beings—a tribe that, despite the many names given them by others, had no name for themselves besides “the People.” Except for confiding about the People to Paul, Jacinta had kept her turn-of-the-century discovery of them a secret from everyone. Paul, too, had apparently done nothing to prove or disprove his sister’s claims, until now.
Unfortunately, Aunt Jacinta had also been documentably crazy. From her late teens on, she’d been variously diagnosed as depressive, bipolar, or long-period schizophrenic. Whichever diagnosis was correct, the truth was that, up on Caracamuni, she went native in a most extreme fashion.
Before them now, a cloud-filled gorge came into view.
“Somewhere down there is where Jacinta’s ghost people are supposed to live,” Michael said, as he and Susan surveyed steep walls plunging away into mist.
“Obscured by clouds. How appropriate.”
Together they swiftly descended into the fine cloudmist that blanketed the abyss. Walking through the increasingly dense undergrowth they came upon what seemed to be a game trail, though neither of them had seen anything on the tepui that would pass for game, big or small.
“At least we won’t have to machete our way through,” Michael said as he pushed foliage aside and plunged on ahead.
“What brought your aunt here in the first place?” Susan asked, sweeping a broken spiderweb away from her face.
“I think she first came to the tepui when she was a graduate student in anthropology. She also had a strong interest in your field, ethnobotany.”
Susan grunted, preoccupied with making her way through the undergrowth.
“By the time she was a postdoc, she was convinced that a particular Pemon myth about the Mawari was true.”
“The one about ancient sky-gods who crashed their essence to earth as spores of the ghost people’s totemic—and hallucinogenic—fungus.”
“An undiscovered people possessing a potent medicinal plant not previously known to science. I can see how that might intrigue anyone interested in ethnobotany.”
“It became something more than just an interest in a hypothetical plant.”
“According to Paul, my aunt felt she not only needed the Mawari, but they needed her, too.”
Making their way into and under the tree canopy, through ever denser cloudforest growth, the two of them heard water flowing and falling with almost musical cadence. The air grew warmer, more sticky-humid, and thick with the smell of life and decay.
“What made your uncle suddenly interested in funding this expedition now, after so many years?”
“You’ve got me there,” Michael said, holding a leafy branch aside so it wouldn’t slash Susan in the face after he pushed it out of his way. “He’s been obsessed with minerals and caves for as long as I’ve known him. It’s what made him rich, after all. And Jacinta did tell him the Mawari fetishized a glassy mineral, stones of a particular ‘tone,’ which they required if they were to ‘sing their mountain to the stars.’ ”
Michael held his breath a moment, wondering if Susan might ask him about his own interests in stars and stones. His fascination with rocks from the cave of the sky was even more widely known than his uncle’s particular obsessions. Michael was relieved when she focused on something else.
“And that had something to do with their ‘needing’ her?”
“Jacinta felt it was her destiny to help the Mawari create some kind of crystalline shamanic machinery that would transform this mountain into, well, a spaceship of sorts.”
Susan shook her head in frank disbelief.
“That sounds flat-out crazy. Your uncle Paul didn’t strike me as the type to believe in such a wild idea.”
“He’s not, but he’s more than willing to throw money in the direction of finding some unique stones.”
They continued downward among misted and dripping plants. Susan identified them as lianas, orchids, epiphytes—seemingly of a thousand kinds.
“Some of these have to be endemics. Remind me to collect samples on the way out.”
As the sound of a waterfall grew steadily to a roar, blotting out everything else, conversation became impossible.
Picking their way over the slippery downed trees that forded the torrent at the gorge’s bottom, they both looked off to that place—somewhere not very far downstream—where the torrent-turned- waterfall thundered away into empty space, sending back up the gorge a twofold sound like an immense echoing heartbeat.
Stepping down onto the rightside bank, they continued east. Soon they found themselves moving along a track that was more and more obviously a footpath. Michael shot Susan a glance, which she pretended not to see.
After following the path for a time they came to what could only have been a trail made by humans. As the trail veered sharply up a small branch canyon, the thunder of the tepui falls at last receded enough to allow the insect and animal sounds of the forest to return. Susan and Michael walked on in silence, caught up in their separate thoughts.
Gradually they gained elevation, enough that the mist cleared around them and the jungle thinned perceptibly. The air had begun to cool again by the time they encountered several foot-trampled pathways converging on an earthen slope beneath a high cliffside.
In the cliff face were some half dozen holes or cave entrances from which a brisk breeze issued steadily. Out of the forest, powerlines and cables snaked—purposeful vines of black, gray, and red, all headed toward the cliffholes. They stopped and stared.
“I think this may be proof, beyond her own words, that Jacinta was here,” Michael said.
“Why her, specifically?” Susan asked, still skeptical. “And why here?”
“Paul says her Mawari ‘destiny’ required that she squandered all her research money—and then all her personal funds—on high-tech equipment irrelevant to tepui exploration. I think all this may have something to do with that.”
“Okaay,” Susan said, still uncertain, “but where are the people, then? I haven’t seen any.”
“Me neither. How about taking a look inside these holes here?”
He scrambled up the slope, toward the largest hole, into which the greatest number of powerlines and cables converged. Stopping at the entrance, the two of them took spelunking coveralls and caving helmets from their backpacks. They slipped the coveralls on over their hiking clothes and fastened on the helmets, each topped with an LED headlamp.
Making their way inside, they walked crouched over, descending into twilight. They soon found that all the cave entrances eventually came together in a single, larger tunnel. The green smell of the cloudforest outside gave way to the scent of damp earth, then to the muddy stink of slow decay as their lights played on the cave walls and into pitch-dark side chambers.
In the first few side chambers they found only squeaking and rustling bats, the stench of their guano, and the delicate milk-on-Rice-Krispies crackle of meat maggots eating the flesh of nightfliers unlucky enough to have fallen to the cave floor.
Beyond where the bats dangled, they passed spectacular stone formations. Stalactites and stalagmites gaped like teeth. Farther on, those formations joined to become pillars and curtains of stone. Susan and Michael had barely finished marveling at them before they came upon more open spaces, and still clearer evidence that the aborted destiny of Jacinta and the Mawari might indeed have been real—or at least a powerfully shared delusion.
Susan and Michael found several pieces of high-tech equipment—an autoclave, two diamond saws, a foldout satellite dish, an uplink antenna, half a dozen each of camcorders, optidisk player recorders, and microscreen TV sets—presumably all items Jacinta had managed to get through the Gran Sabana and onto the plateau, before Michael’s uncle Paul stepped in and stopped such craziness.
In the beams of their headlamps, Michael and Susan saw that the tech—once cutting-edge but now nearly two decades outdated—seemed to have never been used. It also looked almost too pristine, as if it had been maintained against the cool and damp of the cavern with an almost sacramental devotion.
The same seeming devotion had likewise been lavished upon piles of small shining stones, found wherever side tunnels came into the main tunnel.
Excerpted from Spears of God by Howard V. Hendrix. Copyright © 2006 by Howard Hendrix. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.