‘You’re sure this will help?’ He looked down at the shantaram creature.
Monduro nodded. His hair shimmered in the sunlight, like the leaves of the fluorescent pukaheke tree.
Wolf wiped his mouth on his sleeve, leaving a purple stain on his shiny camo shirt. The berry juice had a strange cinnamon smell.
‘How long will it give me?’
The shantaram slurred his words as if speaking was painful. ‘From sssuunnnriiiiisse … to … ssssset.’
The sun had already risen through the fog, making the rim of the canyon glow like hot metal. Wolf slung his camera bag around his neck and under one arm, and secured it using a bandalayer stud.
Monduro dropped over the edge, his short legs dancing on the scree all the way to the canyon floor. Wolf’s descent was less graceful. He’d trekked Moratti Mountains during the Roar of hairy moonstock. He’d even probed Thompson’s Swamp to find giant koura fossils, but he’d never been into the canyon and The Lost Forest. It was like another planet.
‘I wouldn’t be doing this damn fool thing now if it wasn’t for the bounty,’ he thought. He lost focus for a second as the scree moved like marbles under his feet and he tumbled the last 50 metres, landing with a crunch.
‘Get upppp!’ Monduro snapped. ‘Plenty of time to sssssleeeeeep when you deaddddd.’
Wolf’s eyes opened wide in alarm. ‘Get a grip, Wolf,’ he thought. ‘The creature’s joking.’ He shook his head. The Over Council’s experiments on these creatures had never uncovered a sense of humour.
He flicked his moose-tracker out of his pocket to check that the liquid crystal display screen hadn’t broken. The hairs on his arms were glittering. The pukaheke berry juice was working.
The hours passed. Eyes watched them from the trees. Birds swooped for a closer look, but he was shimmering now. There was nothing to tell them he was an intruder.
Wolf stopped and touched the deep antler rubbings on a brodirusa tree. They were higher than him. And they weren’t old.
His pocket vibrated.
Wolf nearly dropped the device in his excitement.
The moose-tracker had activated.
‘We’ve got one!’ Wolf said to Monduro.
The shantaram squatted and pointed to hundreds of silver fluorescent pellets, shiny and rounded at one end like stumpy bullets.
‘Hang on,’ said Wolf. ‘The moose poo that I saw in the museum was brown. This looks like candy.’
Monduro stared at him. ‘Carrrr … rots.’
‘What?’ Wolf said.
Monduro pointed into the sky. ‘Big birds … drop carrr …rots.’
Wolf frowned. The language barrier was bigger than he’d expected. He wiped the sweat off his forehead.
A screech made him turn but there wasn’t enough time to duck. Sharp claws slashed at his head. He covered his face with his arms and screamed as a beak tore out a chunk of flesh.
Monduro called out a warning and the bird retreated.
Wolf’s hands shook as he wrapped his bandanna around the arm wound. ‘YOU SAID the juice would PROTECT ME.’ He spat the words out as if they were venom. ‘If this is protection, I might as well be on my own!’
Monduro tapped his head. ‘Inside betrrrraaaayys you.’
‘Yeah, right.’ Wolf growled. He knew exactly what he was doing.
The last six chocolate moose had been chased over the canyon edge 50 years ago by exterminators. The moose were untouchables - introduced animals that had no place on Planet FaBo. But that was before scientists discovered that the chocolate moose carried a rare and valuable gene and FaBo2 Geographic slapped a million dollar bounty on its rediscovery. That money had Wolf’s name on it. No doubt.
Wolf touched his scalp. It was sticky but it wasn’t gushing blood. He just felt woozy. He waved a hand to show Monduro he wanted to carry on.
‘We have to find this thing and get out of here,’ said Wolf. ‘I have a date with a robocopter.’
‘Ro .. bo ..’
‘It doesn’t matter what it is. Just find me the moose.’
Monduro lifted a horn to his lips and blew. The noise was a mixture of grunts and moans that echoed through the forest. It gave Wolf the creeps, but it worked. The screen on the moose-tracker showed the moose had stopped. Suddenly the flashing light began to move towards them.
‘That’s more like it!’ Wolf grinned and slapped Monduro on the back.
Wolf didn’t care. He’d have his hands on a million smackeroos soon, and he’d never have to see this glow-in-the dark, bow-legged mutant ever again.
As they walked, he unclicked the bag on his chest and turned the camera on. Nothing happened. He tried again and again, and then swore.
‘Damn. So much for getting photos,’ he muttered. He fingered the blade on his pocket knife, wondering how close they could get to the moose.
Monduro stopped and glared at him.
‘You’re reading my thoughts, aren’t you?’ Wolf growled. ‘Look, all I need is an ear or the end of its tail. I won’t kill it.’
The shantaram’s eyes glowed and then went black.
‘I’m not going home without evidence.’ Wolf looked around the clearing. ‘I’ve never seen foam around pukaheke trees before. Is it a seasonal thing?’
Monduro started to explain but Wolf stopped him. The moose-tracker was flashing rapidly. ‘We need to hide.’
Wolf stumbled over some roots and fell face-first into the foam. He grabbed a handful of something slimy as he pushed himself up and pressed his back against the tree.
His hands were shaking as he pressed his phone’s speed dial.
‘Yo,’ a voice said.
‘Jono? It’s me, Wolf,’ he whispered. ‘How fast can you pick me up? Have you got me on GPS?’
‘Man, am I glad to hear from you,’ Jono said. ‘My boss forgot to warn you about the poison in the canyon and he couldn’t find your phone number.’
Wolf wiped the foam off his face. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘You know the Over Council puts animals they don’t want in the Lost Forest?’ the voice crackled. ‘Every year, we take the copters out and dump poison on them. We did it a month ago, but it hangs around for six months, and it’s nasty. Of course, the Over Council wants us to stop now that their precious golden goose is in there.’
Wolf swallowed. ‘You mean the chocolate moose?’
‘Yeah, just jiving,’ Jono chuckled. ‘Hey, I wouldn’t worry about the poison, unless you’ve spent the last few hours eating moose flesh and a few handfuls of poisoned carrots. Or pukaheke berries, of course,’ he said. ‘That tree sucks up poison like a sponge, but I’m sure famous explorers know more about that than I do.’
Jono slurped on his coffee. ‘Hey, Wolf, I can see your signal. I’m leaving now. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes or so.’
Wolf opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. He could see two of Monduro coming towards him. He rubbed his eyes.
‘Just keep away from foam and anything fluorescent,’ Jono said. ‘It’s like a signpost to the poison .…’
The line disconnected.
Monduro pushed Wolf backwards into the froth, on top of the carcass of a decomposing shantaram. Wolf screamed.
Monduro turned his face to the sky and started chanting.
The crawks screeched and circled above them.
The DUB-DUB-DUB of the robocopter was faint, like a distant drumbeat.
‘Help’s coming,’ Wolf’s mind chattered. ‘Hold on.’
Poison burnt through his body, but he felt icy-cold. He started to shake.
Monduro leaned in close. He held Wolf’s pocket knife near Wolf’s cheek and licked the blade. Blood trickled out of his mouth.
‘Jusssst an ear for now …. ’ Monduro whispered, as he moved the blade through Wolf’s hair. ‘Then I take your heart.’