ron Goulart - Challengers of the Unknown

CHALLENGERS

OF THE

UNKNOWN

He was lost in green.

Even the harsh sunlight which came shooting down through the branches seemed green. The jungle was thick all around Bruno Finn, the deep-green fronds, the green-leaved, interlocking branches pressing in everywhere. The green light of the late afternoon sun made the blood running down his left arm glow a blackish-green. The humming insects swirling around the gash Finn had picked up after his helicopter had suddenly dropped into this stretch of Ereguay jungle. They were tinted a pale yellow-green.

The copter, twisted and smashed a few hundred feet away, looked faintly green now, too.

Finn, a thickset man of forty-one, halted. Stumbling around like this was no good. He ought to stay close to the fallen ship. Eventually PetroSur would send out somebody to search for him; they'd send a plane.

"Night's coming," Finn reminded himself. "They won't be able to see you if they come after dark."

Wait, though. He had some flares in the damn

chopper. Sure, he could set those off when he heard the rescue ship.

"If and when," he muttered as he thrashed through the twisting, pressing green to his ruined helicopter. The jungle was pushing at him, filling his nose and mouth with a hot greenness, rasping it into his lungs.

PetroSur would come. He was one of their best troubleshooters; he'd gotten several new oil fields to the south running smooth.

"Except they don't know where the hell I am."

The radio had been smashed when the copter hit. And Finn had found himself falling, plummeting, so suddenly he hadn't had time to contact the nearest PS base. A rainstorm, it came and went in minutes, had rolled over him. Shoved him off course.

"Got a pretty fair idea where I am." Back at his helicopter, Finn, using his good arm, pulled himself over the green-stained wreckage and into the cracked bubble.

He'd spotted the lake as he came falling out of the sky, recognized its shape. It was the one the locals called Lake Sombra, the lake of shadows.

"So much crap." He located the box of flares, worried them out of the cabin and let himself slide to the mossy-green ground.

Stories about Lake Sombra. Amazing what they still believed in some of these South American countries. "A whole nation full of greaseballs, what can you expect?"

Rumors lately. Finn squatted on the ground, carefully set his flare box down. Rumors about the lake, about something coming out of it. Finn shook his head, snorting. He reached for the pack of cigarettes he carried in the breast pocket of his khaki shirt.

"Ought to fix up this damn cut, too." He was smearing green blood all across the front of him.

There was a first-aid kit up in the chopper, too. Finn had gone running from the broken metal carcass of his ruined ship a moment after it settled, clawing and tearing at the surrounding greenness. Heart thumping, echoing in his ears. His mind and body controlled by a blind impulse to get away from there.

"Okay, so I panicked." He worked his way back to the cabin for the first-aid stuff. "Nobody around to see it, nobody's going to put a black mark in the book."

Everything was getting greener. The light, the air, even the silence shoving and pushing at him.

"Silence?"

There had been noise. Goddamn monkeys chattering and sniggering, birds cawing and flapping around. That was all stopped.

When? Only a moment ago, he thought. Nothing now, no sound. Not even wind in the palms and branches.

Finn shrugged, located the red-painted aid box. Back on the ground, leaning against the body of the ruined copter, he pried open the box. "Bacitracin ointment," he read off the label of a green tube. "Sounds like something I better smear on."

The gash wasn't all that bad. Pat it with some of this gauze here and . . .

Something cut across the green silence.

Finn, hand still gripping the edge of the open box, glanced to his left. "Over there?"

A crackling, growing slowly louder. Something coming in his direction.

Finn let the box drop. It hit the muddy ground, spilling bandages and medicines. He tugged his .38 revolver from his belt holster.

Most likely a stray native. Although they were supposed to stay on the preserve, some distance from Lake Sombra.

"Easy now," Finn urged himself. "Bad public relations to shoot the locals. Don't want . . ."

Something stepped out of the green shadows.

Greener than anything else, something Finn didn't really want to believe in. Something his revolver did not faze.

He fired five shots into it before it reached him.

Ninety miles to the west two dead men had a meeting. They met in a huge sunlit room which overlooked a patchwork of bright tiled roofs.

One of the men, he called himself Shuster now, appeared to be in his late thirties. He stood watching the afternoon streets of the capital city of Ereguay. "You can take my word for it, General," he was saying. "It is a major problem."

General Cuerpo wore not a uniform but a very conservative gray business suit. He was reclining in a wicker chair. Even so there was something unmistakably military about him; he radiated it. Long and lean, extremely tan, he looked to be in his early forties. "These stories go back centuries, Shuster. Superstition, folklore, mythology. Call them what you will, they should be no concern of ours."

Shuster ceased watching the city. "I'm not offering you a problem in comparative anthropology." He scowled at the deeply tanned man, "Five locals have died in the past two months."

"No great loss."

"When all of them die within fifteen miles of our processing center," said Shuster, "our supposedly
secret
center, General, then it means trouble. Whatever it is, a legend come to life or a crazed native, we can't afford to have anyone poking around in the Lake Sombra area."

"I don't believe President Chanza, for all his public proclamations to the contrary, much cares about the Indios or the plantation workers."

"Perhaps not, but too much attention is being attracted."

"Surely, Shuster, you don't seriously believe some . . . what shall I call it? You think some creature has lived in the depths of this lake for centuries?"

Shuster rubbed his palms together. They produced a damp, slithery sound. "Something killed five men, ripped them apart, as I understand it. The pattern fits what's believed about the thing."

Cuerpo laughed, his lips barely parted. "We have a good deal more to worry about than this. ... Is it Zarpa they call him?"

"Zarpa, yes," said Shuster. "And I'm telling you, General, we ought to take steps ourselves to find out what's going on. We have to stop—"

"All right, very well." The General made a dismissing gesture. "I'll be sending someone out to you, someone to investigate your bogey monster."

"This situation is too serious for—"

"Please, I've not more time for this," General Cuerpo interrupted. "I'm expecting a visit from our American friend."

It was a very special phone. It sat alone on a gun-metal table against one wall of the windowless room. When it rang there was only a faint mechanical hum. Ace Morgan left the red canvas chair he'd been

sitting in. A tall, rangy, athletic man, Morgan dropped the plastic-covered report he'd been reading, went walking over to the phone.

Its picture screen, the size of a saucer, was glowing a soft yellow.

"Talk," invited Morgan as he flipped a toggle on the instrument.

A pudgy man in a tweedy jacket appeared on the screen, smiling cautiously. "You're looking exceptionally fit and chipper, Ace. Even better than you did in your test pilot days. How's everything in Colorado?"

"For that kind of information you need the Chamber of Commerce, Holden. Anything else on your mind?"

"Ha, yes," said Holden Chote, acknowledging he understood Morgan was being flippant. "We might have a little problem for you and your crew of stalwarts."

How was it Prof had described this government agent? Said he looked like Porky Pig after a couple of years at Yale. "I'm minding the shop pretty much alone at the moment," said Morgan, grinning.

"Have I said something amusing, Ace?"

"No, certainly not. I was thinking about something else. Which I shouldn't be doing while talking to a crack National Espionage Agency agent."

"Oh, I don't mind a bit of friendly kidding, Ace. When I was coxswain with . . . well, to business. You say the Challengers are, save yourself, off on a mission?"

"Not on a mission, no. They're scattered across the Western U.S.A., enjoying various kinds of rest and recreation." >

"Vacationing, eh? Well, all work and no . . . Can you gather 'em up?"

"I can; what sort of assignment does NEA have in

mind?"

"Something right in your line, Ace." On the oval pixscreen Chote smiled a little. "Full of mysterious elements, possibly even a dash of the supernatural. Exactly the kind of thing the Challengers of the Unknown dote on." "Specifics?"

"I'd like to send Alex Hentoff out to brief you all," said the government agent. "Also we want to request your using June on this one." "June Robbins? I don't even know where she—" "Hi, Ace." A very pretty blonde girl replaced Chote on the screen. "I'm in Washington, D.C. Just got a terrific assignment from
Newsmag."
"You a magazine writer now?" "It's part of the cover for this caper of ours, Ace." "Caper? Listen, June, you're a very competent girl, but—"

"That's going to be quite a reunion out there." Chote's porcine face was back. "Almost wish I could jaunt out to your little aerie, Ace. But there's no way I can fit that into my schedule, especially with this

Portugal trouble. Alex'll do a dam good job filling you • »

in.

"Before I gather the clans," said Morgan, "where and what?"

"The assignment will take you to South America," said Chote. "As for the what . . . well—"

"It's a monster, Ace," came June's voice. "They call it the Monster of Lake Sombra. That means lake of shadows and—"

"When does your boy Hentoff plan to descend on us, Holden?"

"Tomorrow afternoon. You'll have to have the rest of the boys there by then." The National Espionage agent shot a hopeful look out at Ace Morgan. "I'll have them here."

"Fine, then I'll start the old ball rolling. Let me add, Ace, that this is an important one." "And it'll be fun," said June. "Yeah, fun." Morgan broke the connection.

The mugging came as a surprise.

It was a pleasant late summer day; the soft breeze drifting across the woodland path had a faint tang of the ocean in it. Rocky Davis, a rucksack on his broad back, was jogging contentedly through Golden Gate Park. He hadn't wrestled pro for quite a while, but he still kept aggressively in shape. Rocky'd passed a lone guitarist a moment ago, but now there was no one else around him on the wide path which zigzagged through the trees.

"Do a couple more miles and pack it in," he advised himself. "Twelve miles is enough, this being a vacation." He was a big man, massive. His disordered curly hair was black; his face had been through considerable.

Rocky jogged at an even pace, his breathing regular. He was, he felt certain, in better condition even than when he held his various titles.

Behind him he heard the rattle of an approaching bicycle. No, make that two or three bikes.

Without bothering to look back, Rocky edged over to the side of the park path.

The cycles got quite close, but didn't pass.

"Ungh," said someone.

Rocky wondered, "What kind of noise is that?"

He found out immediately. It's the sound a big man makes when he throws himself from his moving bike onto your back.

"Kee-rist, fella!" The force of the man hitting him knocked Rocky into the brush off the path. Rocky tottered, flapped over to smack down on his back.

Something in his rucksack made a splung sound.

"You jerk-offs, you popped my yogurt!"

The big man offered no apology. Instead he drove a fist into Rocky's face.

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