The Forest of the Future

A cone-shaped mechanical tree stands in a clearing surrounded by evergreens
“The Forest of the Future”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

When we went out for a hike that morning, I didn’t expect I’d end up dangling from a metal contraption sixty feet high in the middle of the night while being shot at. You were mad and said I got to have all the fun, but I wasn’t the one who clobbered the two guards.

We had been passing through Colorado and you suggested we take a detour. On the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains stands a friendly little forest we like to visit from time to time.

“It’s been forever since we’ve been there.”

“Well…” I thought for a second. “At least six months.”

I’ve lost track of how often we’ve visited, but we recognize many of the trees and they recognize us, though some are still wary of people after all the logging that used to go on there. We got a room in town and the next day drove up into the mountains.

We were walking along a dirt road when we came to a clearing and saw several construction workers and some heavy equipment — a flatbed truck, cherry picker, and a mobile crane with telescoping boom holding up the biggest artificial tree we’d ever seen — a cone-shaped eyesore, five stories high and thirty feet wide at the base. It bristled with hundreds of thin cylinders or rods poking out all over, each of which held clusters of devices, sensors and leaf-sized solar panels.

“I don’t think they’re with the Forest Service,” you said.

“Looks like they’re installing that thing.”

We watched the proceedings for a moment. The metal tree was set into place and released from the crane, which retracted its boom, backed out onto the road, and rumbled away belching fumes. The cherry picker truck moved in and a technician was lifted in the bucket to make adjustments on the external devices, while the rest of the crew worked around the base. 

One guy stood off to the side, wearing slacks and a polo shirt. He seemed to be in charge, so we approached him.

“What is all this?” you asked. “Some kind of Christmas tree?”

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” I said. “We come here a lot.”

He regarded us with interest.

“Oh, you like trees, do you? Well you’ll love this one.” He was brimming with enthusiasm, eager to tell someone about the greatest thing since sliced bread. “We’re from Arbortronix Corporation. Have you heard of us?”

“No, I don’t—”

“Course you have. Small company with big plans, that’s us. And what you see here is our latest invention.” He made a grand gesture toward the metal monstrosity gleaming in the noonday sun.

“It looks sort of… treelike,” you said, trying to be polite.

“Absolutely treelike! In fact, better.” 

“What could be better than a tree?” I asked. 

He turned to me. “Looky here. Trees get water from their roots, transport it up to their leaves, and let it evaporate into the air. And do you know what that’s called?”

“Sure, evapo—”

“Evapotranspiration! Bet you never heard of it. Sounds technical, right? And if it’s technical, a machine can do it. And we’ve got just the machine! It’s the X109 Totally Automatic Computerized Arboreal System, complete with sensors for moisture, wind, light, gamma rays — you name it. Plus converters for air and water. Equipped with GPS, so we can always track its location.”

“But what’s it for? Why do you need it when there are all these real trees here?”

“Yeah,” I added. “They all seem perfectly capable of handling the usual tree responsibilities.”

“Capable? Bah! Inefficient, slovenly, overpaid. Why, half these trees hibernate in the winter — just shed their leaves and go right to sleep, then make the evergreens take up the slack. And they still expect full pay and benefits? Hah! We can’t afford those kinds of work stoppages, not if our forests are going to compete in the global economy against all those hard-working Asian trees, not to mention the Germans.”

“Wait,” you said, “are you talking about replacing the trees?”

“Every last one of them. This forest employs more than two-hundred thousand trees, based on our last census, though not all are of working age. Each X109 can replace enough so-called ‘real’ trees to eliminate eight thousand tree-hours per seven working days, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on employee insurance, salaries, and profit participation.”

“I didn’t know trees got insur—”

This,” he said with another sweep of the hand, “is the Forest of the Future! Totally automated and operated from a central location. No more time clocks, no more personnel department. How’s that for efficiency?”

“It sounds rather dystopian,” you said.

“Better,” he replied, not understanding the word. 

“The X109 costs just a few cents an hour for electricity. It lasts indefinitely, doesn’t get diseases, isn’t bothered by insects, and won’t lose branches in a windstorm. It doesn’t go on coffee breaks, complain to management, or take maternity leave. It provides higher rates of transpiration and better erosion control — and it doesn’t drop leaves all over the place, so no need for a janitor to sweep them up… or whatever happens with them.”

“You seem pretty eager to replace nature with machines,” I said.

“The stockholders demand progress. The world demands progress. Out with the old, in with the new!”

I noticed that the pines and firs around the clearing were trying to look busy, puffing themselves up to appear as fully green and productive as possible. No one wanted to be replaced. The deciduous members of the forest — who were mostly bare by this time of year — had slunk away, doing their best to remain inconspicuous.

“That machine can never outperform a tree,” you said. “It can never take pride in its job.”

“We don’t need pride, we need the work to get done!”

“But a tree has value, a tree has worth,” I said, like I was quoting from a trade union’s pamphlet.

“Value? Yeah — as firewood!”

Things were getting heated. I was starting to imagine how my hands would feel around the neck of this scrawny salesman. The rest of the crew had turned to watch, and they weren’t on our side.

“The trees won’t put up with this,” you said quietly, giving him a steely-eyed look. “They’ll go on strike, shut the whole forest down.”

“What’s that to you?” His mouth curled into a Grinch-like smile. “Don’t worry, they’ll get their severance deal. Now why don’t you leave us to our business? We have to get this test run going, to see how the X109 does. Our investors are coming for a demonstration tomorrow.”

Test run? I looked up at the contraption, then felt your fingers digging into my arm. We were both getting ideas.

“So if it does okay…” you said.

“Then we give the redundant trees their termination notices and start making more of these beauties — get the replacement process going, make our investors happy. Now, if you please?”

We wished him luck, without a trace of sincerity.

“I think that’s just a prototype,” you whispered to me as we walked away. 

“Yeah. What a shame if it completely failed. The investors might get discouraged.”

“I don’t like the way he said severance, like it was a pun. They mean to cut down all the trees. We have to do something — tonight.”

“But first, a little reconnaissance.”

We found a place at the edge of the clearing where we could spy on the setup process for a while.  The worker in the cherry picker had removed a square plate near the top of the cone and was fiddling with something inside, probably the control panel. Others were filling in dirt around the base, covering up pipes that served as mechanical roots for the tree.

A Jeep pulled up and two guys got out — security guards, with sidearms. They set up a campsite about fifty yards off. We figured they’d be patrolling the grounds that night and included them in our list of obstacles, then we headed back to town to pick up a few items.

Around midnight we returned, keeping off the dirt road and walking silently through the woods. On the way, you collected fresh pine needles, rotting oak leaves, and slivers of bark from a spruce. You crushed them between your fingernails and put them into a jar, mixing them with some store-bought ingredients that included lavender oil and a few herbs.

“In case we have to put the guards to sleep,” you explained. “It’s a sort of disremembering elixir — when it works right. Learned it from my grandmother.” 

You let the mixture steep for a half hour or so — the time it took us to reach the clearing — then strained it into a spray bottle. You aimed it at me. “Should I try it out?”

“I’m forgetful enough as it is, thank you.”

You shoved the sprayer into a water-bottle holster you wore on your hip, like a gunslinger ready for action. I was envious — I hadn’t come armed. But I did carry a few hand tools, since I was to be the one who’d climb the mechanical tree and make a few choice adjustments on the control panel. 

We left our daypacks in the woods, taking only what we’d need, and crept to the clearing to see if the security guards would get in our way. We wanted to disable the tree without anyone immediately suspecting sabotage — it had to look like a design failure, or incompetence — so the guards couldn’t know we’d been there. They sat by their tent in the glow of a lantern, talking in low voices.

“I bet they patrol every hour,” you whispered. 

I nodded. We had encountered enough security guards to know the typical routines. You kept watch over them while I snuck off for my rendezvous with the X109.

There wasn’t much of a moon that night, but the camp light provided enough of a glow to see by. The sensors and solar cell arrays sprouted out of metal cylinders the size of wrapping-paper tubes. I hoped they were strong enough to hold me, since I planned to use them as a ladder.

Climbing up was tricky. I had to lie flat against the surface of the tree to crawl under the clusters of devices, while keeping my weight evenly distributed on the cylinders to avoid breaking any. It took me longer than expected, and that delay nearly got me killed.

The control panel was toward the top where the cone became steeper — almost vertical — and the sensor arrays were spaced farther apart, giving me fewer footholds. I got myself positioned with my feet spread wide apart, steadying myself with a hand on a sensor rod to the left of the panel. I slid the wrench out of my back pocket and loosened the four bolts holding the cover. 

“What the hell am I going to do with this?” I asked myself, once the cover was free.

It was about a foot square — slightly curved — and weighed several pounds. Tossing it to the ground was out since I’d need to put it back on when I was done. I tucked the bolts in my pocket then shoved the thick metal plate inside my coat, where it rested against my stomach, balancing on top of my belt. I mentally kicked myself for not having planned that detail.

I put my headlamp on the dimmest setting, pulled out a screwdriver, and set about the delicate work of undetectable sabotage. 

A short while later I heard the oo-oo of an owl — your signal that the guards were on the move, making their rounds. My watch said one o’clock. I hurried to finish making an adjustment — reversing the valves in the pipes under the tree, if I interpreted the labels correctly. Just then a flashlight shined at me from below.

“Hey, Sam, look at that. What’s he doing there? Hey, you!”

“Stop or we’ll shoot!”

I glanced down, but their light blinded me. My right foot slipped. I twisted to the left, dropped the screwdriver, and grabbed the sensor rod with both hands. Then my other foot slipped, leaving me hanging there, facing the guards, unable to get a foothold. The rod started to bend.

“Hands up!” 

My hands couldn’t be any more up. I dangled there, arms straight above me, knowing if I let go I’d crash through all the sharp metal sensors and solar cells below, which would slice my skin to shreds.

“Last warning!”

“Careful, Sam. Don’t wanna damage the tree.” I had to agree with that guard. He seemed more sensible.

“Never mind. I’ll get him down.”

I heard a shot and a device near my head split apart. A lucky miss, though a shard of metal had stung me on the cheek. Before I could surrender or enter into negotiations, he fired again. I felt a punch in the stomach as the bullet ricocheted off the metal plate under my coat. Lucky again, but I was sure the next shot would get me.

“How’d he get up there?”

“Maybe he’s got a ladder.” The flashlight aimed toward the base of the tree.

With the light out of my eyes I looked down and could see them standing side by side, guns in hand. Then you came up from behind, holding a thick branch like a club. You brought it down onto one guard’s head — thunk — at the same time kicking the other guy in the back of the knees. His legs buckled. While he tried to regain his balance you clubbed him as well. Another thunk, wood against skull.

They were both down — not seriously hurt, just momentarily stunned. You pulled out your bottle and sprayed each one in the face, giving them a dose of the elixir that would send them into a deep sleep, after which they’d remember nothing from this night. You waited a second, then sprayed them again for good measure.

You called up to me. “I didn’t want to do that.”

“I know.” I was struggling to regain my footing.

“But you’re having fun I see.”

“Give me a few more minutes. I’ll help you get them back to their tent.”

It took more than a few minutes. First I had to pull myself back up into position without slipping. Once I was steady on my feet again I set my headlamp on full brightness — no need for stealth now — and reached into my back pocket for another screwdriver.

I slid out the console labeled ‘transpiration’ and reversed a couple of wires. “I wonder what this will do,” I said under my breath, then submitted other controls to a similar treatment. Once done, I took the metal cover from under my coat and reattached it. The dent didn’t show too much. I gave it a loving pat for saving my life. 

After climbing back down, I joined you and we carried the two guards to their tent, where we laid them on their cots. One was snoring.

We searched the ground by the tree and removed any evidence of our having been there, including the dropped screwdriver and the two shells from when Sam the guard shot at me. You had even cleaned his gun while I was finishing up with the control panel, and replaced the two cartridges from a box of them you found in the tent. As far as they were concerned, neither one had used his gun. We weren’t sure how they’d explain the bumps on their heads.

“Next time,” I said, “we should bring a bottle of whiskey or something, so we can make it look like they got drunk and passed out.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Though I wouldn’t want them to get fired for it.”

“No, that would be unjust.”

We needed to perfect our subduing-the-guards strategy, since we seemed to run into that situation a lot.

The following day we violated a rule and returned to the scene of the crime, mostly because we wanted to finish our hike. To avoid being recognized we wore street clothes, sunglasses, and wide-brimmed hats. We weren’t worried though — the investors would be there, the press had been notified, and even the public had been invited to this groundbreaking experiment in forest innovation. Sure enough, by about ten o’clock a crowd had gathered at the clearing. We had to park a quarter mile down the dirt road.

The X109 was a sad sight. 

It leaned at a precarious angle. The ground had gotten soaked — don’t ask me how — and several root-pipes stuck out of the mud, squirting water. The thousands of leaf-sized solar cells drooped in wilting clusters, unable to receive sunlight, forcing the machine to drain power from its backup batteries. A greenish layer of slime was spreading over the once-gleaming surface, oozing from millions of pores designed for taking in air. Again, I won’t admit to knowing how the intakes became outputs.

“What a shame,” you said, holding back a smile. 

I nodded, trying not to be too smug about my flair for sabotage.

Of course, we knew the technicians would figure out the problem eventually. The real damage was to the company’s reputation. The unveiling of the prototype was a public relations disaster and Arbortronix lost the confidence of its investors. A group of them pushed their way out of the crowd, followed by our acquaintance from the day before. He was pleading with them.

“Okay, this didn’t work so well. But I gotta tell you about our next big thing. We’re going to replace all the crops with mechanized plants. Better for the environment. We’ll call it ‘Beyond Wheat’ — how about that?”

The investors waved him away and strode off toward their cars, shaking their heads and grumbling. The trees around the clearing looked on with amusement. The press had a field day. 

Later, Arbortronix was denied permission to run further tests on public lands. Private property owners also weren’t keen on giving the company access to their lands, not after all the bad publicity. A small victory for the forests.

“They’ll keep trying,” you said as we headed back to the car. “They think they’re part of a crusade to improve on nature.”

I stopped and looked off into the distance. “Then we’ll be there, all around in the dark. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry trees can eat, we’ll be there. Wherever there’s a logger beatin’ up a tree, we’ll be there. We’ll be in the way trees sway in the wind, and in the way they laugh when they’re dry and they know rain’s a-comin’. Wherever trees are tryin’ to make a decent livin’, we’ll be there to—”

“No we won’t. What are you talking about?”

“I’m just practicing my solidarity speech.”

“What are you — Tom Joad? I think the forest needs more than the good intentions of an Okie from the Dust Bowl era to fight off this threat.” You patted me on the shoulder. “But you did a pretty good Henry Fonda there.”

We changed into hiking clothes and walked into the woods. The trees were glad to see us.

Autumn Spirit

A tree winds its branches round in bright yellow and orange colors of fall
“Autumn Spirit”, 8in x 8in, acrylic on canvas

One autumn morning we found three yellow leaves arranged just so on the doorstep — a calling card delivered by wind to invite us out into the woods. Trees in the forest who know where we live send leaves by long-distance air — to say Hello or How fares your garden? or The oaks are turning, you must come see. This message included a request for help — the second leaf curled at the edge.

“Time to see the trees,” I said.

You composed a response and sent it by bird, to tell our good friends we were coming. 

Leaf-reading can be learned, though it takes persistent study. Look at the shapes, the arrangement, the colors — the syntax is perfectly clear. I’m talking about real leaves, of course, not tiny ones found in tea.

Few town dwellers know how trees correspond, and pay no heed to memos spread on the ground, grumbling instead about having to rake their lawns and clean the gutters. That’s okay — domesticated trees who live in the suburbs have little of interest to say. As long as they’re watered and fed, they’re content to laze in the yard and soak up the sun. They have that in common with cats. Or they loiter along city streets watching cars go by, then dare each other to stretch a branch up into the power lines for the fun of causing some mischief.

Trees like that would never fit in with the worldly-wise types in the woods. And besides, they—

“Are you ready to go?” you asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“Sure.” I put on my coat and stuck gloves in my pockets.

We had been invited to an event that occurs throughout the forests at this time of year. Trees call it the Autumn Spirit — a celebration of giving and sharing that involves exchanging leaves, which are then scattered about or released cheerfully into the breeze. Outsiders just think of it as “Fall” — a time to enjoy the colors — but we know it holds a deeper meaning for the forest inhabitants. We were honored to be included, but wondered what the trouble was.

I looked again at the invitation as I shut the door behind us. “Must be a delicate subject, or they would have said what it was about.” Leaf-borne messages aren’t exactly private.

“We’ll find out when we get there.”

You drove, and an hour later we turned onto a narrow dirt road and parked near a hidden path known only to us. We shuffled our way through the red and gold carpet that covered the trail, greeting each tree we knew and meeting some we didn’t. We like to have as many friends in the woods as we can. I don’t mean badgers or foxes or deer. Creatures like that are too unreliable. Trees for the most part stay in one place, so visiting them is easier.

“Here’s the grove,” I said. We had reached the designated spot.

Oaks, poplars, aspens, cottonwoods and more stood about and joined in the exchange — even the evergreens, who usually like to hang on to their needles as long as possible so they can stay active through the winter, maybe because they don’t want to miss Christmas, though getting harvested as a holiday decoration has its drawbacks. Still, they contributed what they could.

We had no gifts of leaves to share, but our hosts assured us, as good hosts do, that our presence was a gift in itself. 

The atmosphere of celebration, however, was tempered by an unhappy group of trees standing off to one side, watching the activities with disapproval it seemed, or confusion. They had broad, pointed leaves and smooth bark. I couldn’t place the species, though they looked deciduous. Curiously, their leaves were still fully green, with not a trace of fall color in them.

You nudged me. “That must be what the problem is. They’re not getting into the spirit.”

“They’re not even observing basic conventions of nature.”

We stepped aside from the festivities to see what we could do. We could tell by their accents they weren’t from around here, not that I’m judging.

Turns out, they had recently come here as immigrants — resettled from the tropics I assumed — and had not adapted too well. They were unfamiliar with the local custom of letting one’s leaves turn colors in the fall and drop off onto the ground, exposing the limbs for all to see. 

How exotic, they thought, somewhat shocked. They never did that in the old country — show off with garish reds and yellows before completely disrobing. Must be an American thing. They certainly didn’t want their children picking up such habits.

No, we assured them, it’s quite natural among deciduous trees all over the world, in temperate regions anyway. They looked skeptical.

You turned to me. “You’re the botany expert, you explain it.”

I decided to skip the technical details about how the reduced amount of daylight at higher latitudes makes it difficult to photosynthesize and thus maintain foliage in the winter. They probably knew that instinctively. Instead, I got right to the key benefit of shedding leaves.

“In America,” I told them, “you get to go dormant in the winter. No one expects anything of you — just sleep all day, like teenagers. Maybe take up a hobby.” That got their attention.

They shook their branches in excitement. What a country!

I was about to say that other countries offer similar opportunities, but didn’t want them getting ideas. We need immigrants like them to settle here, both to increase our tree population and to perform some manual labor — condition the soil, prevent erosion, absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, and provide an agreeable habitat for squirrels and birds. We don’t have a lot of college graduates lining up for those jobs.

Of course, the newcomers had questions about how the leaf-changing process worked, which the local trees couldn’t answer — they just did it naturally. Like asking a person how to make skin cells grow — I don’t even know that, I just do it naturally. But I’ve studied enough botany to explain the leaf thing, and obliged them in that.

The younger ones got it right away, and started showing each other how they could break down their green chlorophyll molecules and reveal their other pigments. A few even managed to turn some leaves completely yellow, to the astonishment and alarm of their parents, who still clung to their dark foliage, nervous about the whole leaf-shedding part of the operation. They’d need a little more time before adopting this strange custom. I sympathized.

Soon enough the youngsters were joining in the festivities, completely enthralled by the Autumn Spirit and easily getting along with their peers.

“I think they’ll do fine here,” you said.

The leaf exchange went on through the day, amid much laughter and kind acceptance. We were showered with leaves and tossed them about, as the spirit of the celebration inspired us. I guess that was our way of fitting in. We didn’t get home until well after dark. 

The next morning I looked at the yard, sighed, then got out the rake.

Demon-Rock Peak

A steep, cone-shaped peak stands against a troubled sky
“Demon-Rock Peak”, 12in x 14in, acrylic on panel

We hadn’t agreed to climb the most dangerous peak in the hemisphere for recreation purposes. We did it for science. And no one else wanted the job, because not one person had ever survived an ascent to the top of Demon-Rock Peak, though determined climbers keep trying — and keep going home in body bags.

Those hapless mountaineers are always defeated by the rock demons that live on the slopes. These are not the creatures of fantasy novels or video games, or fanciful beasts devised to scare children and amuse tourists. Nor are they “made of rock” as many disbelieving travelers say with a wink and a smile, ignoring the warnings of the locals before heading up the mountain to meet their demise.

No, this uncatalogued creature — for no biologist has examined one yet — hides in crevices of cracked stone and feeds on whatever or whoever climbs by, then heaves the grisly remains down the sheer cliff. Or it lies in wait and jumps out at climbers to scare them into losing their grip, just for the sport of watching them fall. A nasty business all around.

And yet, when a group of geologists asked if we would install a seismometer at the top of Demon-Rock Peak, you had immediately said yes. I wondered why.

“Something no one knows about,” you confided to me, “it’s hollow inside. That’s the only way to the top.”

“Is this old native lore? Or a rumor?”

“My uncle told me about it,” you said. “He was in Guatemala getting intel on that recent pyramid discovery.”

“On a secret assignment?” I knew about your uncle. He wasn’t an archaeologist.

“He wouldn’t say — naturally. But he found out about the entrance into the mountain. That’s the secret.”

So we signed up for the job.

In their defense, the geologists did suspect Demon-Rock Peak wasn’t solid all the way through, which was why they wanted to measure its resonant frequency and modes of vibration. But none of them were keen on risking life and limb to set up the necessary equipment. Fortunately, their research budget allowed for hiring outside help, though not for providing accidental death insurance.

“We won’t be in any danger,” you insisted, “once we get inside.”

“Once we get inside. But before then…”

“We’ll have to watch out.”

The day we arrived in town the sky was in a mood, but so were we — tired out from a long train ride and a four-hour bus trip through winding mountain roads. Clouds loomed overhead in warning, and we dodged the rain as we hauled our luggage to the hotel.

“Well this is gloomy,” I said, not at all pleased.

“I agree it’s rather foreboding. We need it to be sunny if we’re going to find that entrance.”

The instructions your uncle had sent us — after you cajoled him into it — gave the location of the entrance into the mountain, translated from an inscription on the newly-discovered pyramid: Look for the point of the shadow of the tallest spire on the east side of the peak at sunrise on the equinox.

“Which equinox,” I had asked, after deciphering the string of prepositional phrases, “spring or fall?”

You paused in thought. “Does it matter?”

I paused as well. “No, I guess it should be the same.”

That night in our hotel room we packed for the climb. I was to carry the seismometer, you had most of the other gear.

“Shall I let you go ahead of me tomorrow,” I gallantly offered, “so you can be first up the mountain?”

You threw the coiled rope at me. “You look tasty enough for a rock demon. I wouldn’t want to deprive them.”

The weather cleared overnight and the sun was obliging. We took a taxi to the east side of the peak, as per the instructions. The driver looked at us funny, since most climbers approach from the west, where the road goes right up to the base of the sheer rock wall. We’d have to hike though a kilometer of jungle before reaching the rocky slope that formed the skirt of Demon-Rock Peak. He also wondered why we both had full backpacks and lacked the usual array of climbing equipment, but that was our business.

“Watch out for jaguars,” was all he said when he dropped us off, then muttered, “and other creatures.”

We were both armed — I with my long hunting knife, you with a pistol and extra clips of ammunition. You had also bought a short, broad saber — which you called a cutlass — from a merchant in the city where we caught the train. Neither of us knew if having such a weapon was legal there, but details like that rarely bothered us.

We took turns going first — through the tropical forest, then up the rocky slope where we wound our way between huge boulders that had splintered off the mountain and lay in great piles. We didn’t need the rope. 

The tricky thing was, we had arrived many weeks after the September equinox and had started our hike after sunrise, being reluctant to encounter dangerous creatures in the dark. That meant the spire’s shadow wouldn’t be pointing anywhere near the fabled entrance.

But once we found the spire, we’d just need to see where its shadow lay against the side of the peak and do a little trigonometry. You left that to me, since I had looked up the details of the sun’s position throughout the day and had written them down in my journal. To locate the entrance we’d also need the spire’s distance from the peak — that was our unknown, which I labeled d in the diagram I had sketched.

Another unknown was how long it would take to find this particular rock sticking up from the base of the mountain, and whether our search would be delayed. We heard calls from farther up the slope: keech-keech and chickety-chickety-kech, followed by a chattering of teeth, tik-tik-tik-tik. Not a good sign.

I unsheathed my hunting knife. You already had your pistol out. We stepped a bit warier then, wedging our way through the boulders, pausing at times to listen and get our bearings. I glanced at the sun. It was still low in the morning sky, but well above the horizon.

“There are some pointy rocks over there,” I said, after we had rounded a bend.

“Head for the tallest one. Maybe that’s it.”

We reached a gathering of boulders that had been sheared off the mountain and jammed into the ground, pointy end up. One especially tall and narrow splinter stood out from the rest, throwing its shadow against the side of the peak, and a check of the compass showed it to be directly east. We had found it. As we approached, we both agreed that the spire-to-mountain distance was about ninety meters as the crow flies.

We set down our packs for a brief rest. I pulled out my notes to do the necessary calculations, while you unstrapped your cutlass to have it handy. Before we had a chance to catch our breaths, we heard a clattering of shale and the scurrying of many feet coming from the direction of the slope. The bushes nearby rustled and three rock demons rushed straight at us.

You fired a shot — pow! — and two more — pow! pow! One of the creatures sprung at me. I swept my arm up to knock its claws aside and stabbed at its back, but its tough scales deflected the blade. It clawed at me again. I flipped the knife in my hand and thrust upward, deep into its soft neck. It jerked back and went down, writhing in pain and oozing a brownish liquid from the wound.

You had killed the first creature with your pistol. That left one more, which you were fighting off with your cutlass, to save ammunition. You slashed at its head and neck. It ducked, leapt sideways, and lunged. You pivoted as it charged, avoided its bite, then finished it off with a well-placed jab in the side. All three attackers were down.

But we were far from safe. The mountain was full of these creatures, and now they smelled blood. We could hear several more coming our way.

“Hurry up and figure out that entrance,” you said. “I’ll stand guard.”

As I sat and picked up my journal, I surveyed the scene. The rock demons resembled giant horned lizards the size of baboons, covered in spiky scales. Their heads were protected by a prickly helmet that grew out of their skulls, and their gaping mouths had rows of teeth that could chomp through rock — or flesh and bone. Unlike lizards, their legs were long and apelike, though heavily scaled and equipped with razor-sharp claws that easily tore through thick pants and the skin underneath, as I had just learned.

They weren’t the first deadly creatures we’ve encountered in our travels. Fortunately, we were prepared. Most climbers don’t come to Demon-Rock Peak so well-armed — and we’re experienced with this kind of thing. I put our chance of survival at more than fifty percent.

The next assault came while I was plugging in numbers. 

I didn’t look up when I heard your shots, assuming you had things under control. I checked the time, found the position of the sun from my list, got an approximate angle — then wham! — a rock demon slammed into me from the side. It must have slipped past while you fought three or four others. 

I could smell its rancid breath and felt teeth scraping against my scalp as I toppled over with the beast tearing at me. You whirled around and whacked it with the cutlass, stunning it for a second. I pushed it to one side and rolled away, out of the line of fire. You shot it in the head and it slumped to the ground.

A thought occurred to me as I sat up. “I hope these things aren’t considered endangered.”

“Right now we’re considered endangered!” You turned back toward the attackers and fired two more shots. I went back to my calculations.

A minute later I had the answer. I squinted up at the side of the peak, gauging the distance and angle I had just figured out, and noted where we’d have to aim for — higher and to the left of the shadow’s current position. I stood up, then stopped to watch you for a few seconds.

You had the pistol in your left hand and the cutlass in your right — shooting at rock demons still several paces off while slashing at creatures that got too close. You raised your left arm to take a shot and swept your other arm down in a graceful arc to fend off an attacker, stepping lively to the side then pirouetting in a half turn, shooting again across your front and swinging the blade overhead in a smooth and swift motion, as your hair whipped around your face in the bright sunlight, like a modern warrior princess performing a fierce dance. It was beautiful.

And effective. The creatures got the message and backed off, then slunk away, leaving their fallen comrades. You had defeated them — for now — and bought us some time. We bandaged our wounds and you reloaded your clips, then we hoisted our packs.

I pointed to where the entrance should be. “It’s to the right of whatever that foliage is, near that vertical sort of stripe on the rock face.”

“Can you walk?”

I had three nasty gashes on my right shin — along with deep scratches on my head and arms — but could put most of my weight on that foot. “Sure. You?” 

Both of your legs had been clawed, and the bite marks on your shoulder could probably have used stitches. You flexed your knees and winced. “I’ll be fine.”

A half hour later we had made our way safely up the slope, scrambling over boulders and scree, climbing up natural stone steps, until we reached a ledge that ran along the side of the steep mountain wall. We were nearly at the height of where the entrance should be, but still to the south of it.

I went first along the ledge while you watched our backs. The path sloped gently upward into a patch of thick bushes. I borrowed your cutlass and hacked a way through, working up a sweat in the warming sun. Beyond the bushes the ledge ran into a towering slab that jutted straight out from the mountain. 

“It’s a dead end,” I said. Then I looked closer, and smiled.

I had been fooled by a trick of light and color. The play of shadows on the vertical grooves created an illusion that made the barrier look solid. I put my hand against the stone and moved it toward the mountain until I felt an edge. 

“There’s a crack here. But we’ll never get through it.”

You came up beside me, tapped my shoulder, then pointed a few meters above our heads where the crack widened into a black opening — the entrance, hidden in the shadow. No wonder it was a secret. We’d need the rope after all.

We took off our packs and I made a short climb up — wedging my fingers in the crack, bracing one foot against the wall and the other against the slab — then hauled up the packs on the rope. You stood guard again, watching and listening, but the rock demons were still deathly afraid of you and left us alone. Once I had secured the packs you holstered your pistol and pulled yourself up.

“We don’t have to worry about being attacked in here, do we?” I asked as I coiled the rope.

“Those creatures aren’t adapted to the dark any more than we are. They’ll stay outside.”

We put on headlamps and entered a narrow tunnel where twists and turns prevented a single ray of light from getting in. It seemed to be a natural formation — a fissure perhaps — that had been further carved out by ancient Maya architects. After several minutes the passageway opened up into a chamber whose walls and ceiling were beyond the reach of our lights. 

We had entered the hollow core of Demon-Rock Peak.

I resisted the urge to shout hey! and listen for the echo, but then you clapped your hands twice and waited. The sound faded into the distance and never returned. The cavity was enormous. It must have stretched a few hundred meters across and at least a thousand meters high — about the size of the peak, minus the thickness of the walls.

“There’s supposed to be a stairway,” you said. That was also part of the legend. We turned and followed the wall to our right.

“Rock demons may not like the dark,” I said, “but something might live inside this cavern.”

“More likely several things, if there’s to be a viable ecosystem in here.”

That didn’t make me feel better. I kept one hand on my knife, ready to pull it out. As it was, we didn’t run into any more creatures, not even bats.  But we did find the stairs.

The steps were carved right out of the rock, winding around the inside of the peak all the way to the top — the world’s largest indoor spiral staircase. There was no railing, though the architects had thoughtfully put a low, ankle-height wall running along the left edge of the stairs.

We began our ascent. The wide steps were worn smooth from centuries of use long ago, and the wall on the right had a layer of soot from a time when the way was lit by torches.

The air was surprisingly refreshing, invigorating even, like the smell of trees in springtime after a rain shower, though we never saw anything growing in there, nor did we see or hear any flowing water. Still, the air had rejuvenating powers — my injuries felt better and I had more energy, which made the climb easier. You mentioned it as well.

And so we continued up and up, step after step, around and around the interior of the cone whose walls grew ever closer the higher we climbed. We occasionally passed a landing — a small flat area next to an alcove that often featured a stone bench, for resting we assumed, which we sometimes took advantage of.

“Well,” I said, “one thing the Maya knew how to do — build steps.” I thought of the neatly-carved stairways running up the sides of all those pyramids in the region.

“I believe they had a few other accomplishments.”

It was early afternoon when we reached the top. The stairs ended and we crossed a long platform that led to an archway framing a smooth, flat stone.

“I guess this is a door of some kind,” I said. There was no handle on it. “Maybe we need to utter a magic word to make it open. What’s the Mayan word for friend?”

“We could just try opening it normally.”

Good idea. We pushed against the door. It groaned in protest as it swung outward on some kind of hinge, allowing just enough room to squeeze through. You slipped out and I handed the packs to you, then followed. We were on a wide patio near the top of the peak, surrounded on three sides by a rock wall in which were carved several seats and what seemed to be a fireplace, with a lovely view of the tropical forest below.

“You know,” I observed, “with a few pine torches here, a tray of hors d’oeuvres and a beverage cart, this could be a nice—”

“This is perfect. You can set up the seismometer over there, and I’ll put the transmitter here by the edge.”

We had lunch, then got to work. I still thought it would be a nice place for a soirée — and I bet the ancient Maya thought so too. We saw no signs of rock demons, and suspected they didn’t come this far up the peak, since there’d rarely be anything for them to eat.

Once we got the equipment set up and working, we immediately prepared to head back down. We wanted to be off the mountain before dark, knowing we’d be cutting it close. We squeezed back through the opening, put on our headlamps, and pulled the stone door shut. Neither of us was looking forward to the trek down the long staircase, followed by another round of fighting off rock demons.

“Are we ever going to tell anyone about this place? I don’t even think your uncle knows what’s in here — he just had some cryptic translation about a legendary entrance.”

You adjusted your pack. “Maybe some archaeologists would be interested, and those geologists. But once word got out there’d be tourists swarming up here, leaving trash everywhere and scrawling graffiti on the walls. And they’d want to get rid of the rock demons.”

“You were doing a pretty good job of that yourself.”

“Only a dozen or so! No, the authorities would exterminate the entire colony, once tourist money was at stake.”

I believe you had developed a soft spot for those noble creatures, while I rated rock demons the same as mosquitoes on the desirability scale. “Yeah, we don’t need the extinction of a species on our conscience. We’ll keep quiet then.”

“People will find out someday, but not from us.”

We started down the steps.