My feminine bottom slides down the wet, slippery cliff at the end of the path of foliage, dropping me forty meters into the abyss below where I thrash, arms flailing about me in a sure drown, water gulping down my tight throat in a struggle for air. My long, auburn hair is drenched to my side like a second skin. I barely know how to swim, but I have no other choice but to sink down where I won’t be seen. They’re on my trail and the choking gas has almost reached me.
Glancing skyward, under a thin layer of water, I see a cake of the pinkish fog choke the plants and moss above, that grows off the dark stones there—the only elegance out here. Water cascades into a beautiful waterfall toward me in a steady stream, and I hear the loud fog horn-like sound from my pursuers alerting everyone in the vicinity that I’m nearby.
They’ll need to find me before sundown or risk encountering the savage wildlife of the Amazon rainforest, like Radguars, a mutated form of the Jaguar which began to appear after the radiation hit. No one ever lives after facing one. They’ll tear a man to shreds.
I hear them coming, five of them—they always come in fives—their thick boots hitting the forest floor in a scratch-scratch as they approach the end of my path. I’m not even sure how I do this—hear them. The distance is more than thirty meters away and the rush of water interferes with my ears. I never would have been able to do this before they took me.
Taken in the middle of the night by Borran’s soldiers while asleep in my cell, a two-by-three-meter room in which I’d been locked for a year, since I was sixteen, after I’d stolen a loaf of bread from a village vendor. Too many of us end up behind bars for petty crimes, to ensure as a whole we comply with the laws. When they registered me for prison, they scanned the bar code on my upper arm, denoting my full name, region of residency, and any prior arrests. I didn’t have priors before, but now my bar code will always show I was in prison.
Block D, Cell 47; D47 was my designation. Hadn’t heard my real name—Jin Maharaj—in a year. Even my cellmate referred to me as D47. By cellmate, I mean he shared the concrete cell next to me and we could speak only through a barred opening between us, the size of my hand. We all got used to calling each other numbers. When they first took me, I’d sit in my cell for hours daydreaming about my family, about Lila—our good family friend. She was married to a medicine man and tried to help Papa and my sister May when they got sick. I’d remember her words of encouragement, ‘Nature has all the answers. Stick to nature.’ But I’d always be interrupted by our mandated chores: washing clothes, floors, toilets, gardening, or working in the shops to make rubber. Slop three times a day was pushed under the cell door to keep us alive for all the work.
Prisoners were the first to undergo the Graph procedure to enhance human abilities by grafting animal cells and neural tissue into humans. As a side effect, electrical pulses from animal brain waves would fuse—or Graph—into the human’s brain waves and form an intuitive bond with the animal. I struggled, kicked, and maybe even screamed before a team from Borran’s Animal Graph facility injected me with a sedative, their faces growing fuzzy, my hands grappling for something—anything—to hold on to, before I fell asleep in the arms of my enemy.
From under the thin layer of water, I watch the edge of the cliff, forty meters away, where two soldiers turn their heads left and right in a frantic search for me. I can see so much detail I shouldn’t, like the lines over their left chest pocket designating rank, and the mud splattered on the sides of their boots. Even the freckles splayed across the nose of one of them. They’ve been ordered to hunt me—to find me and then kill me, as part of their training. I feel weak, as if I could drown at any minute, because I can’t hold my breath any longer; surely I can’t. My brain tells me I need to breathe, and breathe now! Yet I’ll have to ignore the incessant thought creeping into my mind.
Maybe the water can take me, take my breath and end me, make it all come to a close. I’m exhausted, tired of running, and it’s been a year since I’ve seen my mother—Ariana, and my younger brother—Carlos. They were forbidden to visit me in the cell, as all visitors are nowadays. My padre and older sister, May, both died from illness six months before I was thrown into prison. It’s easy to die in this world where medicines are kept only for the Prestige—the upper class that makes up 3% of the nation’s population. The rest of us poor live in sporadic villages or face the nights alone, and food is hard to come by. Meat, including fish that survived all the radiation from the Atlantic or rivers, is supposed to be given to the village guards when they come in for their monthly visits. Villages only get to keep 5% of their catch. That’s why I stole that loaf of bread for my brother. He’d gone two days without eating. Some villages grow flax or chia seeds, and others wheat or barly, still some lucky ones have chickens and eggs—but it’s never enough. If we try hiding our fish or eggs, if caught—we’re killed on the spot. I’ve seen a family murdered when I was just ten in Guiana for storing forbidden meats. Because of the radiation, good meat is hard to come by.
Suddenly, my skin feels satiated, my lungs fill with air, and I’m not sure what’s happening or what I’ve done, but I can breathe. I take a breath and then another. I breathe as if I’m on land, except I’m not—I’m underwater. Then I suddenly remember I still have a chance at escape, because I’m not human anymore. I’m Graphed.
Two soldiers in my sight look over the cliff, their necks straining to get a better view, and then they turn away with a shake of their heads before retreating into the forest. I feel my chest ease with relief and take another deep breath of fresh forest air, nothing like the musty cell.
This hunt makes a kind of sadistic sense, in the mind of King Borran Khan. Many of his soldiers haven’t yet undergone the Graphing procedure; only his top soldiers—after years of experiments had ensured they’d survive it—have had the Graphing installed, but the more Graphing they’ve done, the less the soldiers obey orders. The very weapon the King designed to dominate the world has a flaw. The very animalistic features that make the Graph so strong also make it wild and unpredictable.
Still, both the Graphed and unGraphed soldiers need to know how to kill us: the illegally Graphed. If Borran is to secure his nation, he has to know how to kill his enemy. An enemy encroaching on all sides now, even from within. An enemy he himself had a hand in creating.
When I don’t see soldiers after several minutes, I swim to the edge of the lake and slowly crawl out, my knees heavy, and black garb—standard prison issue—as cold and wet as my hair. My hands clasp my ears as I hear insects annoyingly buzz around me at an intensity I can’t shut off, and crickets chirp, warning me of what’s to come. Nightfall will be here soon, and I have to find a secure place to hide if I’m going to survive. I’ll have to worry about my newfound Graph gifts later. Whether they’ve made me a freak or foe to the forest will have to come second to me finding safe cover for the evening.
After about ten minutes of searching, of pushing through tangled vines and large, fanning leaves, and even almost stepping on a horde of bullet ants, I abandon a ten-meter-high barrigona tree which won’t provide much cover even though it has good height. The huasai and palmito palms are surrounded by water, and I don’t want to be above black caimans snapping at me all night. Finally, after twenty more minutes, I find a walking palm, and though low on the ground, the tent-like structure of the tree rods will act as protection around me while I sleep. I’ll hear a wild animal—or solider—approaching before it gets me.
I drop to my knees and crawl between two tree rods shooting off the ground, and find the tree’s center. I relax my back against the far side of the rods and let my legs fan out before me and over the grassy mound just as a heavy rain starts to pelt, spreading a fragrance of wet birch. Then, a crest of tomato-red sun rays wisps over me in a dying breath before disappearing altogether. I don’t want night to come; I sit in the pitch black and can’t believe I’m still alive. Do Graphed targets ever make it past day one? My eyes again shift into something different from human. I feel the change like a wet sponge over my skin, and though subtle at first, the alteration soon becomes sure, and I notice anything that moves—a snake, a frog, a bird. My brain refuses to grow quiet, and I have to fight the urge to chase.
Like all of us in prison, I knew this day would come, that one day it would be my turn. Rumors circulated in prison after five hundred prisoners, taken four years ago, never returned. Some guards had seen things, and certain prisoners overheard gossip. Word got around fast. We all know now the experiments won’t ever end as long as there are prisoners and the King has more world to conquer. Borran will find enough reasons to imprison whomever he needs to ‘secure his nation.’ Besides, there are always improvements the BAG facility—the name prisoners dubbed Borran’s Animal Graph facility—wants to make to advance their product. Despite a growing fervor against these rumored experiments from animal rights groups and the PAPE (People Against Prisoner Experiments), they continue.
I awoke inside of the BAG facility with my wrists and ankles strapped to a cot in a medical facility in some remote forest, with wires and tubes connected to my brain and body. I only knew I was in the Amazon when I read a label on a passing cart carrying equipment. Images from the computer screens on the ceiling told me what I would become: part harpy eagle, part blue dart frog, and part imported Bengal tiger— but I still have no idea what my gifts will be, the BAG scientists could have focused on any number of the animal cells.
Over treetops, harpy eagles caw above me as I cower in the Amazon. The archaic sound soothes me somehow. I even heard harpy eagles squawk inside of BAG, nearby the cage. Chills rushed up my spine when the growl of Bengals echoed through my chambers. The animals have to be kept alive for their cells to be fresh enough to work with, and after the Graphing procedure to my cells behind my eyes, chest, throat and tongue—plus skin, ears, and even part of my brain—I knew I’d never be the same again, or I’d more likely be dead, after they succeeded in their goal.
Prisoners can’t be relied upon for fulfilling Borran’s missions. Missions are for military soldiers, some of whom have volunteered and some of whom have been forced into the system, then trained in combat and brainwashed to follow orders without question. The BAG facility will have no need of me once they acquire the results they want. Like all prisoners, I’m expendable.
I gaze up through the rods of the tree protecting me, wondering what Mama is doing, or even my younger brother, what they’ve done without me for a year. I used to walk Carlos to the market vendors to get food. He was safe with me. My padre taught me how to fight. Yet without me, he’d have to go alone or wait till Mama finishes work to go with him. Village work is hard and long, and with little pay if any. Work is commissioned by Borran, and offers nothing.
Tired of the unfairness when my family couldn’t afford food for a week, I stole the bread. A week where Mama spent ten hours working with other villagers to build a fence commissioned by Borran. Carlos was so hungry. It was either steal bread from a vendor, or venture into the forbidden Amazon and take illegal fruits. So, here I am. A prisoner.
Prisoners were used in secret experiments on behalf of securing the nation four years ago, but after these rumors got out about the procedure, resistance groups formed in France, Russia, and even within the Americas. Illegal Graphing facilities soon followed, even popping up inside of remote villages.
I try to sleep—to let my Graph take hold of me fully. I’ve discovered my eagle vision, which earlier allowed me to spot the soldiers’ details from forty meters away; and my blue dart frog, which kept me safe underwater with oxygen absorbed through my skin. I’ve even stumbled upon my Bengal tiger’s sensitive hearing and sight at night, both of which keep my mind more than active when I so desperately want to sleep.
Hiding between walking palm rods to keep safe from BAG soldiers set to kill me, I wonder how I’ll get out of the Amazon. My lids are heavy and I shudder remembering that about forty-two years ago today, South America became a part of ‘Americas the Great’ after a series of intense invasions and economic pressures from Truss, called the Two Years War in history books that no longer exist.
A melodic caw of what could be a stretched harp sounds overhead. My gaze captures the large frame of another harpy eagle, and the majestic bow as it dives into the treetops, and I’m fixated on its white crest sitting on top of its gray head. My lids flutter, half dreaming, as I stare at the creature, until suddenly a bellowing growl that could shake the Earth precedes a cracking crunch over branches. When a large red-spotted Radguar—with red eyes like blood—bangs against the rods of the walking palm where I’ve found my bed for the night, chills rush up my spine.
Each tooth is as large as the plant rods themselves are wide, and as sharp as a knife. The wild beast smells like wet leaves, and I rise to my feet as I jerk backward from its wide swiping paw. My instinct is to run, but I can’t. I’m pinned inside the walking palm, but at least I’m safe—for now.
The animal paces and circles my bed while growling in frustration, rubbing his head over the rods. I feel the coarse breath in my chest tightening, as if my chest is shrinking. Is it my Graph, or am I just scared? When I wrap my hands around the palm rods behind me for balance, the Radguar on the other side pushes his nose between two of the rods, his facial features drawing dangerously closer. His head is too big to fit between the rods, but he pushes, his jagged teeth showing like razors, as the weight of his body bends one of the rods with a crack and snap, and allows him to push further inside to the center of the walking palm. Each step produces a louder crunch of leaves underneath him.
I’m going to die. This moment will be my last. I take comfort knowing that nature—or its irradiated version—will be my killer instead of BAG soldiers. The thought offers me a sense of relief, and I feel I can even resign myself to the beast’s great power.
I’m ready to let him win, to give him one more victory over humankind.
He growls, a sound reverberating, and all I can hear is his sonorous roar telling me I don’t belong here. When his nostrils flare and his head shakes—saliva squirting everywhere—I close my eyes and let him end me. A wet nose nestles into my stomach like a tender kiss and my eyes flick open surprised. His head rests under my hands—as if he trusts me? I’m sure he’ll bite me, take a large chunk of flesh with him to enjoy—this submission must be some kind of a trick—but he doesn’t. He just sniffs and nestles, the wet nose wiping further against my skin. I’m sure now that my Graphed Bengal has just saved me, because tigers and Radguars mate at times in the Amazon, ever since their numbers were decimated, and I’m so grateful again that I’ve been Graphed.
I breathe heavily. I’m alive, not dead; and a Radguar who should have killed me, has not. As I look at this majestic creature who rules the forests and could kill a lion, I’m not sure if I’m fearful or curious. He could leave his deadly mark on me, but he doesn’t, and I’m humbled by his docility instead, something I don’t see much of in this harsh world.
Even King Truss Khan wanted to make his mark before he died. Seems all beasts do. Possess more land, more power—like a hunger that never ends. The world around us went into a frenzy when Truss took over South America forty-two years ago by force. Fear suffocated us all, of what he might do next. Soon, nuclear bombs became the shorthand for F-you. When bombs finally stopped dropping, over half the human population and animals were killed—four billion people—and half of those still living developed deformities from radiation poisoning. Most infrastructures of the world crumbled and everyone was left in the rubbled chaos.
Old rules—old bureaucracy—dissipated in the mayhem left behind. At age forty-three, Truss erected himself as the supreme ruler of ‘Americas the Great’. His reign could not be questioned and did not end for another forty-two hard years. Truss controlled North and South America, rebuilding the continents in his own image. Satellites in space remained, but few computers and communication devices were rebuilt during this period and usually for the purposes of control. A few vehicles and weapons were redesigned, but much of the old world was gone forever.
As I rest, I forget that the most dangerous beast of the Amazon—the Radguar—is in my lap when I let my eyes finally fully close. Hard to imagine something more dangerous than Truss Khan, that if they bumped into each other in the Amazon, Truss would be found with his head ripped off.
Maybe that thought eases me the most, gives me the most comfort—even if false. It’s hard to sleep at night without something to ease me. Memories of my third night in the cell always invade me.
…My back to the wall, my hands hitting, flailing, as two nondescript guards in blue-black uniform seize my space. Their hard fists pound my body before one kicks me in the stomach and my frail form falls to the cold concrete ground, my hands clenching my sore belly.
My mind goes black. I try to push the harsh memories out and squeeze the irradiated animal beside me for comfort. Animals aren’t like people; they don’t hide who they are. You know exactly what they want when they come to you. The Radguar keeps to my folded legs and then to my side when I have to go pee. If he hasn’t killed me yet, he isn’t going to and I know I can trust him. The soldier’s fear of the wild—of Radguars—will keep me safe from them, at least during the night, but then I’ll have to be ready to face the soldiers by morning, a morning that took twenty-two years to heal from damage of the nuclear war started by Truss.
When Truss finally died, his son Borran took over. Has been for the past four years. At sixty-two, Borran wants to infiltrate the world and own it, not destroy it as his padre had done. Over those first four years of the son’s rule, King Borran Khan has perfected what my world today knows as Animal Graphing.