All characters, companies and events in this book are fictitious, any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
The Cloud Lily
The Cloud Lily clings to the grey stone, mist swirling among its sinuous fronds, biding its time in a cleft in the bare rock of the mountain top as its roots dig deep into the ancient skull of its prey for any last vestiges of food.
In 2016, a team of plant hunters working for the biotech giant, Midstream, embark upon a mission to the Cloud Mountains in search of new 'extremophytes', plants living in extreme environments. Novel plants could hold the key to medical breakthroughs and the creation of new medicines and so the competition is fierce to track down new species. Midstream specialises in finding, collecting and patenting plant genes from extremophytes found in some of the most inhospitable places in the world.
Professor Lacey Whorton-Ffynde, plant geneticist, runs Midstream Laboratories based in the Kent countryside, England. Her team of four plant hunters are selected across a spectrum of fields, headed up by Glenn Havener, mountaineer and survival expert. Dr. Chris Forster, plant hunter and mountaineer, Angelique Clement, polar explorer and climate scientist and Reginald Branch, veteran plant hunter are the other full-time members of the team. For the Cloud Mountains expedition they recruit a local support team and establish a base camp at the base of Nube Tepui, deep in the Venezuelan mountain plateau. Nube Tepui's sheer rock cliffs soar vertically some 5000 feet above sea-level, effectively cutting off the flat summit of the mountain from the rich forest below. The hope is, if the team can reach the previously unconquered summit, they stand to find a treasure trove of new plant species for Midstream. But the mountain is notorious for its violent weather systems and dangerous rockfalls, many have tried and failed to reach its summit and each year the mountain's death toll slowly rises.
Lacey Whorton-Ffynde quickly punches in the code for the wall safe in her office and pulls out a slim package wrapped in leather. She carefully unwraps the contents on her desk and, slipping on a pair of cotton gloves, carefully turns the yellowed pages of a old, slim herbal, dated 1559 and hand written in Spanish. The page she stops on shows a painting of a strange plant with flowing roots and thick stems supporting pitcher-like leaves and racemes of lily flowers, painted in the deep maroon of dried blood. Next to it is a name, 'Lirio de Nube' under which is a clumsily drawn skull. The Cloud Lily. As far as Lacey knows, the herbal is the only depiction of this plant, unknown and lost since a fateful expedition by Spanish botanists in 1559 into the interior of Venezuela. Only one survivor was ever found, three years later, mad and starving, wandering in the forests, still clutching the book. Over the centuries the book has been hidden away, passed through private book collections across Europe to finally find its way into the great library at Whorton-Ffynde Grange some time in the eighteenth century where it sat gathering dust until, Lacey, a young girl in search of hidden treasure in her family home, found it in the 1970's.
Her hope is this plant is real and still thriving somewhere in the Cloud Mountains. Her hope is it is indeed as poisonous as the skull suggests. It could be the medical find of the decade and catapult Midstream into one of the top biotech companies in the world. She runs a finger gently over the lily and smiles to herself, then quickly wraps the book up and replaces it in the safe. She checks the time, she should be able to contact her team by satellite phone at the base camp within the hour.
Glenn Havener's alarm on his watch beeps. The satellite will be in range. He strides over to the battery packs under the main awning and plugs his phone into one. As far as Glenn is concerned, organisation is the key to success, so if he can charge his phone at the same time he is talking, all the better.
Angelique Clement watches Glenn from the field desk where she is organising an uplink to the satellite for a detailed weather report modelled on her computer for the next five days. Any longer than that and it is the meteorological equivalent of a guess. 'Are you waiting for a call from Prof. Wharton-Fiend?' she calls over, her Canadian accent noticeable in the mispronunciation of the name. Glenn chuckles, and replies. 'Were-Tun Fine! It's pronounced Were-Tun Fine! You've been with us six months and you still can't get it right.'
'Can you find out if helicopter retrieval will be possible if I can confirm a weather window?' She continues typing in their coordinates into the computer as she talks. 'Just to be on the safe side I'd like to see if we can airlift out any samples out as I think it's the safest way to maintain a biological quarantine.'
Glenn nods in agreement. 'I'll see what I can do. We can map an extraction point once we are up there and can see the terrain.... Hello? Lacey? It's Glenn, at base camp...'
On the other side of the camp, Chris Forster and Reginald Branch are organising the packing of collecting bags into their rug sacks. Chris glances across at Reg as he mentally tries to calculate the extra weight plant samples could make on the return journey back down if Angelique is unable to guarantee a clear window for a helicopter and starts in surprise. He could have sworn he saw Reg slipping a bottle marked with the hazard pictogram for acute toxicity on it. The distinctive crossbones and skull are unmistakeable, even in the low light under the forest canopy. Reg looks up from his pack, sensing Chris is staring at him.
'Expecting trouble up there?' Chris asks, as casually as he can, one brow raised to try and soften the intense stare of his agate-green eyes.
'What? Oh, this?' Reg retrieves the small bottle of poison from his pack and chucks it over to Chris, who catches it carefully. 'It's basically a weed killer. I don't know why but, perhaps I've heard too many of the local team's stories. Just a precaution. There's something not quite right... an odd feeling to this place. Did you know Nube Tepui is meant to be cursed? There is a local legend that if you make it to the top, you never return.'
'No one has ever made it to the top. It's unconquered, that is the whole point of this expedition!' Chris inspects the small glass bottle with its seal still intact. 'You need to store this with the medical equipment and log it, I don't remember seeing it on your manifest. We need to know exactly what everyone is carrying as we go up the cliff. You get caught in a rock fall and this smashes all over you, you, and anyone helping you, will be dead. This stays at base camp. OK?' Chris waits till Reg nods and then carefully hands the bottle back. He'd check later to make sure Reg logs and secures it properly. It is the first time he has ever seen Reg so rattled by an expedition. The mountain, the remote location, the climb itself would be enough to contend with without local superstitions scaring everyone into dangerous behaviour patterns. Chris tries to lighten the mood, sensing Reg's tense disapproval at being reprimanded by the younger man. 'Anyway, what kind of plants are you expecting us to find up there? Triffids?'
Reg laughs and relaxes the tension from his shoulders. 'No, just heliamphora, pitcher plants, which are carnivorous. There are twenty-three known species, I'm hoping we will add to the number as well as any lichens and mosses I guess you'll be collecting...'
Chris nods as Reg launches into an explanation of the feeding mechanisms of pitcher plants, glad to see his familiar ease return and he makes a mental note to mention to Glenn about the local team's superstitions regarding Nube Tepui.
Reg is right, he will, as usual be collecting lichens and mosses. Lichens are a composite organism, two different things living together in a symbiotic relationship. Normally a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria. The fungus protects and collects water and nutrients which the algae or cyanobacteria can use and in return, photosynthesise to produce food for the fungus. Lichens are not a plant, but a living organism and there are tens of thousands of them. The reason Midstream is so interested in finding new lichens is for the antibiotic metabolites some produce. New lichens means new metabolites which could in turn be new medicines.
'Well, this is done.' Chris swings his pack onto his shoulder to judge the weight and gives Reg a friendly pat on the back, 'Ill catch up with you later. Need to check the weather report with Angelique, could you store this with the others when you're done?' He places his pack next to Reg's and then wanders over to where Angelique is busy at the field desk.
She waves as he approaches. 'Good news, the weather is looking promising. Possibly a three day window opening up tomorrow evening.'
'A night climb?' Chris perches on the edge of the desk next to her. 'I had hoped to get a clear run at the cliff face. Can we push it till the following dawn?'
'I can only guarantee seventy-two hours, forecasting beyond that is stepping into uncertainty. It looks as thought the weather should hold but...'
'I know, I know, better safe than sorry.' Chris knows Angelique will not commit to more than three days but from the chart he is seeing on her screen the weather could hold for as much as a week.
Glenn is talking loudly over the satellite phone and, judging from the tone, Chris guesses it is to the Professor back in England.
'Yes, we have a window opening up tomorrow and so we will possibly attempt a night climb... yes but a bivouac is possible. No, I think we are all able to minimise any risk, once above the forest canopy the moonlight will help... no I... yes. A helicopter for biological quarantine. I can organise coordinates, it wouldn't have to land. Yes, yes I see. Of course, of course. Yes and I would like to just point out....hello?' But Professor Lacey Whorton-Ffynde has already hung up.
'Great! Looks like she's not going to authorise a night climb. Too risky, not for us but in case we miss any plants!' Glenn shakes his head. It narrows the window on the weather forecast.
'And the helicopter?'
'She'll organise it once we are up there and have something she thinks worth the extra cost, otherwise bag, tag and bring it back down ourselves, as usual.'
Chris shifts from the desk and as Glenn starts to stride towards the mess tent. 'Glenn, could I have a quick word with you?'
'Sure, I'm going to grab a cup of tea. Join me.' Glenn looks at Chris, noticing the concern in his voice. Glenn smiles at Angelique as he passes and shrugs his shoulders. 'Sorry about the helicopter.'
She smiles and shouts after them as they walk off, 'Sorry about your night climb!'
She smiles and shouts after them as they walk off, 'Sorry about your night climb!'