The mask Arnold was wearing was very tight around his head. It was a very uncomfortable thing to wear but it was the safest way to cross such a horrible place. The Deadland, as some had named it, was a huge marsh land that had always been there but, all of a sudden, had begun to grow and occupy more and more territory. Of course, this happened after the war, a time in which a faction had used the marshland as a hiding place for themselves and all their weapons, including experimental ones.
It was rumored that an explosion had occurred a few months before hostilities had ended. The problem was, no one could really tell if such an explosion had happened. Some of the elders from nearby towns, people who used to get in their boats and fish on the canals crossing the marshland, were the ones that told the rest of the world about the explosion. As many satellites had been rendered useless in the fight, there was no way to confirm what they had seen or any detail related to it.
According to the general story, a roaring sound preceded the actual explosion. Some said it was like a gigantic lion roaring in pain or a panther, about to attack its prey. They all agreed that the earth shook violently afterwards and that the water in the canals rose in the most dangerous manner. Some even said they had fallen of their boats. A mushroom cloud then rose from the marshland and it had a very specific feature to it: it was very elongated and the color of a ripe plum.
The elders said the cloud rose to the sky for several days, until it apparently dropped back again to the ground. It was very strange that, if that was the case, no one had the idea of taking a picture. A woman on the other side of the marshland tried to show Arnold and his team a picture she had allegedly taken but it was as blurry as those UFO pictures people used to believe were real. The woman was obviously in need of much needed attention, so they left telling her she was right about everything.
Penetrating into the marshland had not been the first idea of the government but, after testing the air and water, it seemed the place was really changing fast in a chemical way, at the very least. The toxicity had grown so fast, that some people had died when passing by the marshland and not even entering. That was what made the government decide to send the team inside and not only collect proof of how that ecosystem was growing and, at the same time, seemed to be poisoning itself by the minute. It was very important to know what was going on.
Arnold’s team was made up of only five people. The military had sent their representative, as well as one from the department of National Security and another from the Ministry of the Environment. The other two people were him and his assistant Linda, who had asked repeatedly if she could join the team. She had always had a certain obsession with fungus and mold and every toxic thing in the world and she wanted to be a part of the team that went inside that awful place.
They did so one morning, after eating a very light breakfast. They all put on their masks and carried a backpack, which was half a tank of oxygen and half scientific equipment. Even the military guy had to carry computers and other things to test plants and, if they found any, animals. He carried a large assault rifle and a gun on his thigh, which was clearly excessive. If he misfired or anything bad happened, guns would not be a match for toxins. But he didn’t seem to mind that detail.
The place was flooded with water and it was right there when they found the first traces of heavy toxicity: the bodies of several small mammals floated all around them. There were rats and raccoons and also squirrels. Many tiny corpses of little colorful birds floated there too and it was clear the possibility of anything surviving such a catastrophe was not very high. They moved on, trying to find dryer land but they couldn’t. So they took out the inflatable boat and paddles and moved on.
They had decided against bringing a boat with an engine because of the noise it made and because its movement could cause some unwanted reaction in the water. The best idea was not to disturb the environment, even if it was doomed for a prompt death. The woman from the Department of National Security was one of the two people paddling, slowly through the maze of trees and many other plants. It was her who gasped and made everyone look to the side. The boat stopped.
There was a tree there, which was not very unusual. But what made them open their mouths in disbelief was that it was twice or maybe three times the size a normal tree was. This wasn’t a red oak forest or anything like it. Most trees in these parts would only grow to three or four meters, at most. But that one was huge and, not only that, it featured some of the brightest colors any of them had ever seen. It was almost as if the tree was glowing right there, during the day, with the sun very high in the sky. But it wasn’t. It was a strange mutation, result of some kind of event.
Arnold began to realize that all reports about an explosion had to be true. Only a cataclysmic event of that magnitude could explain the strange changes that were now obvious all around them. Because there were not only dead animals and colorful trees, also huge bushes that had once been as tall as a medium sized dog and water that seemed to be colored blue. The scariest part of it all was when, out of nowhere, a bird flew from a tree and flew above their head, making them spent more oxygen that they should have.
The creature was not only bigger than a normal bird from a swamp; it had also developed new features in its body. As a scientist, both Arnold and Linda knew that any other scientist would be thrilled to visit such a place, once they knew about the change that has been done. Mankind had been the one to blame here, that much was true. No creature evolves from one day to the next. So Arnold proposed a slight change of course, in order to look for the source of the explosion and any remains that could exist.
After several hours of paddling, in which each person did a shift, they didn’t seem to find anything knew. According to their devices, they were about to hit the northern border of the growing marshland, which wasn’t where they wanted to go at all. They needed to go deeper, to the center of the whole ecosystem in order to see for themselves if there was some kind of remnant of the bomb or whatever it was that caused the explosion. It was essential to find the key to explain the existence of such a place.
The boat moved around several canals and, finally, they seemed to be where they wanted. However, the sun was beginning to descend and that meant they had little time to go around and look for any evidence. Besides, their oxygen tanks weren’t eternal and there was no way to survive that place without them. Arnold descended from the boat and asked for the military guy to accompany him. His weapons could be of use after all. It was not a place to be taking things lightly.
They had barely started their walk when a roaring sound came from beneath the canal, not the trees. Something resembling a tree branch, but much thicker and mobile, appeared from beneath the boat, knocking it out of the way and sending its passengers flying.
Linda fell close to the men and the other woman swam fast to the edge of trees where she could be rescued. However, the fifth member of the team was impaled by the branch, after he had landed on a nearby mangrove. They couldn’t scream, just run, hoping that thing wasn’t able to follow them.