Summer knew that something was wrong the second she saw Otoniel dash out of the jungle towards her. His eyes were as wide as dinner plates and the color had completely gone out of his skin. He was panting too hard to shout anything at either Summer or Russ, but there was a sense of panic that had completely engulfed him.
"Walter," Summer guessed as Otoniel got closer. "Something's wrong with Walter."
"Doctor Newcomb!" Otoniel finally yelled out over his panicked breaths. "Doctor Newcomb has been bitten!"
Russ took off towards Otoniel, meeting him halfway down Hanan Pacha's main street. The village was small, so it took little time for the two men to collide, Russ grabbing the smaller man by the shoulders to calm him down.
"Where is he?" Russ asked quickly, shaking Otoniel. "Where's Walter?"
"In the fields," the translator panted, desperately trying to regain composure.
There were shouts coming from jungle behind them, as the Huaca villagers caught up with Otoniel. They were shouting in Huaca, but Summer at least understood that they were calling for Punchau, Hanan Pacha's medicine man.
"Let's go," Russ said to both Otoniel and Summer, following Punchau as the Huaca raced off in the direction of the planting fields. Otoniel took a few deep breaths before falling in behind Summer and Russ, but he dutifully followed them back out of the village.
Hanan Pacha was little more than a dozen or so huts scattered alongside the Rio Clemente in the Valle de los Reyes. There were a few irrigation ditches that ran from the river to the farmland that a Peace Corps volunteer had helped dig nearly a decade earlier, but other than that, Hanan Pacha looked as if it hadn't change in centuries. To a certain extent, it hadn't.
The Huaca Indians, who called all of Valle de los Reyes in Bolivia their home, had somehow managed to slip through the cracks of history. They'd coexisted relatively peacefully with Inca at the height of Incan civilization, and had somehow managed to go unnoticed by Pizarro and the Conquistadors as they carved up most of South America. Antonio José de Sucré had hidden from the Spanish in a Huaca village sometime in 1824, but otherwise the Huaca had managed to sit out the War for Independence, as well as the subsequent War of the Pacific and the Chaco War. Even the political movements, both the MNR and the MIR, tended to ignore the Huaca, finding better support in the cities and other parts of the country than they did in Bolivia's north-eastern corner. Dr. Hernán Siles Zuazo, who had been swept back into power the previous year, had been in office for seven months before he even mentioned the Huaca in public.
When Summer, Russ, and Walter had first arrived in Bolivia eight weeks earlier, they had cherished the idea that they were in a different world, a forgotten corner of the globe that had remained unspoiled by industrialization. If Walter was now in trouble, however, the long trek back to San Eduardo or Guayaramerin didn't seem to be so wondrous.
Punchau reached the sixty-one-year-old chemist first, dropping alongside side him to examine the teeth marks in Walter's ankle. He chattered hurriedly back and forth with the farmers in Huaca, and by the time that Russ and Summer had caught up with him, he had a firm grasp on the situation. A runner was sent for both Pachacamac, the village chief, and Pachacamac's son.
If Otoniel had been pale, Walter was completely white. He was howling in agony, rolling on the ground as the Huaca farmers held him down. Summer wasn't even sure that the elderly man even realized that she and Russ were there. The medicine man looked up at Russ, quickly explaining the situation in Spanish.
"What did he say?" Summer asked after a few seconds of back-and-forth between Russ and Punchau. She spoke little Spanish and no Huaca, so she was lost in shouts and verbal concerns that were floating around her.
"Greensnake," Russ replied seriously. "Andean greensnake. Apparently it had just been lying among the crops, and Walter accidentally stepped on it." Walter had gone off with some of the farmers to see the fields while Summer and Russ had remained behind, in the village. The older man had taken Otoniel with him to translate what the farmer was saying, leaving Russ and Punchau to communicate back in the village in Spanish. Walter had been talking about Huaca crop growth since they'd first arrived in the Valle de los Reyes, and the chance to see first-hand what the Huaca were growing was too much of an opportunity for him to miss.
"How bad is it?" Summer asked, brushing her long blonde hair from her eyes.
Russ shook his head. "Punchau says the worst part is the pain." He stopped, listening the medicine man's explanation in Spanish as Otoniel finally dropped down with them. "Punchau sent someone to get something for the pain - some type of salve or something. He's not in immediate danger, but he's suffering pretty bad from the venom."
"Walter! Walter! Can you hear me?" Russ asked the older man. There was no sense that Walter heard him, his eyes rolling back in his head.
"Greensnake venom is hallucinogenic," Otoniel explained. "But you definitely still feel the burning all throughout your insides."
Summer glanced over at their translator. Otoniel hadn't grown up in the Valle de los Reyes, but he had grown up in Bolivia. "Have you been bitten before?" she asked.
He shook his head, solemnly replying, "mi hermano."
From the look on Otoniel's face, Summer knew that Otoniel's brother had not made it. "How long do we have?"
Before Otoniel could reply, Russ answered, "About twenty-four hours. That's what Punchau says."
Otoniel and the medicine man had a short conversation, Punchau's Huaca much better than his Spanish. As they talked, a rusty pick-up truck bounced across the fields, Pachacamac sitting in the passenger seat and his son Anqas behind the wheel. There were a few men in the bed of the truck, which came to an abrupt halt a few feet from the hectic scene around Dr. Walter Newcomb. Dust rose into the air as Pachacamac stepped out, stooping down alongside Punchau. As the chief and his medicine man talked soberly, Otoniel turned to Russ and Summer.
"I should have fixed our jeep," Otoniel cried, a worried look in his eyes. "I should have fixed out jeep."
The jeep that Ambrosia Pharmaceuticals had purchased for the small team of scientists had been broken for over a week and half. Otoniel had been pressing Walter about the need to fix it, in case an emergency arose, but Walter had told Otoniel to focus on other tasks around the Ambrosia camp, like the water, the radio, and so on and so on. They weren't planning on making a supply run into San Eduardo for another two weeks, and in Walter's opinion, there were better things that the Bolivian could be doing with his time.
"Calm down, Oto," Russ consoled the other man. "The Huaca have a truck - I'm sure that they'll let us borrow it to take Walter to the hospital. Now, what else did Punchau say about Walter?"
As Otoniel translated what the medicine man had said earlier, one of the villagers from the back of Anqas's pick-up began rubbing a thick white paste onto Walter's leg. Almost immediately, the older man's shivering and shaking had stopped, and he seemed to calm down.
"What is that?" Summer asked, surprised that the cream was even having an effect. She had half-expected nothing to happen, thinking it was nothing more than a superstitious herbal remedy.
"Samincha. It's a native blend of roots, leaves, and berries from plants around the valley," Otoniel explained. "It's not a cure, though; it simply helps the pain go away."
Pachacamac clapped to get Otoniel's attention, and began talking with the team's translator. As Summer ran her hand across Walter's forehead in an effort to calm him down, she listened to an increasingly insistent conversation on the part of both men involved. Otoniel was clearly upset, but Pachacamac seemed just as annoyed.
"What?" Russ asked. "What is he saying?"
Otoniel gave one last angry glance towards the chief before turning to two Americans in front of him. "He says that his son will take us to the hospital in Guayaramerin, but he doesn't trust us with the truck."
"'Doesn't trust us?'" Russ asked, not believing what he had heard. "Anqas is going to be with us. Doesn't he trust his truck with his own son?"
The translator shook his head. "We need to give him some sort of collateral, some sort of insurance that we will bring the truck back."
"But Anqas is going to be with us, right? He's driving us to Guayaramerin, isn't he?"
Calming himself down, Otoniel explained, "You have to understand that this truck is the only vehicle for miles, Doctor Szalinski. Hanan Pacha relies on it day in and day out. For Pachacamac to let us use the truck, even to take Walter to Guayaramerin, requires a lot of trust on his part."
"Russ, let's just give him something," Summer interjected. "Whatever it is, we can come back for it. It's going to take us twenty-seven hours to get to the hospital, and from what I understand, that's about three hours longer than Walter has. Whatever he wants, let's just leave it here, because we need to go NOW. Even if it's some of the expensive equipment, we're going to be back for it. We aren't planning to steal the truck."
"Fine, fine," Russ replied. "What does he want, Oto?"
Otoniel swallowed hard, obviously nervous about the chief's demand. "He wants Summer."
Summer and Russ both exchanged a look of concern. The woman, in disbelief, asked, "He wants me?"
"Just as collateral, Doctor Monroe. You said yourself that we will be back after Walter gets to the hospital."
Summer wasn't sure she liked the idea of remaining behind as collateral for the truck. For one thing, she thought she should be with Walter. For another, she was skeptical about what the chief wanted her for.
Otoniel obviously sense the hesitation, and elaborated. "There are two things I need to explain first. The Huaca concept of 'borrowing' something essentially means a transfer of ownership. Technically, we will 'own' the village's truck, and the village with 'own' you, Doctor Monroe."
"Yes, but while there is no difference to the Huaca when it comes to owning and borrowing, there are two distinct words for the type of ownership that is implied. The chief used the one that signifies ownership of a thing, like the truck, or a plow, or like livestock." He looked into Summer's eyes reassuringly. "The type of ownership that you're worried about - slavery, prostitution - necessitates the use of different word. You're just an object, like the truck, and not a concubine or sexual slave, Doctor Monroe."
"I still don't like it," Summer replied.
"Summer, what choice do we have?" Russ implored. "Walter needs to get to the hospital, and needs to leave RIGHT NOW. Even if the jeep was working back at the camp, it's a two-hour hike back there. We need to get Walter into this truck, and on the road to Guayaramerin immediately."
Summer was still doubtful.
More calmly, Russ reassured his colleague, "We'll be back as soon as we can. It's a day and half there, and then a day and half back. I'll leave Walter with the doctors in Guayaramerin, and be back for you as soon as possible."
"Yes! Yes!" Summer finally gave in. She didn't like the trade, didn't like the idea that she was going to be like "livestock" for Pachacamac and the village of Hanan Pacha. But there was no other option. Either she'd stay behind in the Huaca village, or Walter would die.
Still, something bothered her about the whole arrangement.
"Good," Russ replied, ordering Punchau in Spanish to help him get Walter up on to the truck. Otoniel and some of the villagers milling around helped as well, hefting the elderly man into the bed. Walter's moaning and squealing had stopped, and he was noticeably calmer than he'd been when Summer and Russ had first found him. Obviously, the salve had worked its magic.
"Otoniel," Russ said to the translator as he climbed up into the bed of the truck himself, "stay behind with Summer and make sure that she's okay. And if you get a chance, try to get the jeep going."
"Yes, Doctor Szalinski."
Punchau and a few other villagers joined Walter and Russ in the back of the truck, as Anqas and another man slipped themselves into the cab.
"I'll radio back to the camp and leave a message when we go through San Eduardo, and then again once we get to the hospital in Guayaramerin." As the truck started up, Russ turned his attention back to Summer. "You'll be fine," he assured her. "You've got Otoniel with you, and I'll be back in three days."
With that, Anqas floored the gas and the truck disappeared in a cloud of dirt, racing up the road from the fields and away from Hanan Pacha. Only Summer, Otoniel, Pachacamac, and two other men remained behind.
"Well," Summer began, he heart still beating fast because of everything that had just happened, "what now?"
Otoniel translated her question to Pachacamac, and the middle-aged chief simply laughed at first. He then began to slowly answer Otoniel, and Otoniel apparently didn't like the response. They shouted back and forth at each other, Pachacamac growing less and less patient each time he had to counter the translator's argument.
"What?" Summer asked. "What is it?" She was already worried about the full consequences of her deal with the chief.
Otoniel shook his head, not wanting to let her now. After she pushed him, he finally said, "He wants you to remove your clothes."
Bolivian tree frogs were to blame. If it weren't for Bolivian tree frogs, Walter wouldn't have been bitten by a greensnake, Russ wouldn't be racing away towards the nearest hospital, and Summer wouldn't be faced with the prospects of stripping for a Huaca chief.
There were stories about Bolivian tree frogs in the northeastern region of the country, nestled away in a single valley known as the Valle de los Reyes, or the Valley of the Kings. Apparently, Spanish scientists and botanists who had scoured over most of Alta Peru had discovered an anomaly among the frogs from that region. While Bolivian tree frogs elsewhere were little different from the many other species of tree frogs that populated the continent, frogs in the Valle de los Reyes went through an accelerated growth process. They were hatched out of eyes and spent their early lives as tadpoles, just like other frogs, before maturing to adulthood. The only difference was that these particular frogs did it in one-sixth the amount of time.
While the Spanish had abandoned any additional scientific study of the anomalous frogs in favor of plundering the hillsides for silver and enslaving the native Incan population for the mines, the first records of these particular tree frogs survived, and piqued the curiosity of someone at Ambrosia Pharmaceuticals in the American metropolis of Babylon. The drug company had put itself on the map with experimental new chemicals, and as the biomedical boom continued in Babylon's downtown Leather District, Ambrosia was looking for the "next big thing."
If the stories were true, and the Bolivian tree frogs of the Valle de los Reyes were truly able to go through an accelerated adolescence, the hormones that caused the acceleration would be worth a small fortune back in the US. The eyes of Ambrosia's executives had only seen possible dollar signs, even through the practical applications had yet to be imagined. Scientists, much like Summer Monroe, Russell Szalinski, and Walter Newcomb, had imagined a vast potential of uses for such a theoretical compound, called "accelerated growth hormone," or simply AGH for short.
And so, Ambrosia had sent a small team down to South America on an expedition. Dr. Walter Newcomb, a life-long employee of Ambrosia, had been picked to lead the team. He was getting old, but he still knew more about drugs, hormones, and pharmaceuticals than many others in Babylon. And since he had no family, there was little to keep him from spending an extended length of time down in Bolivia.
Russ Szalinski, on the other hand, had both a wife and a seven-year-old daughter back in the suburbs of Babylon. But the search of AGH was so compelling that Russ had begged his higher-ups to be put on the project. Even if he had to spend four months apart from his family, the discovery of AGH would put him on the scientific map.
The last scientist picked for the team was Dr. Summer Monroe, who had only just recently completed her PhD in biology. Though she had applied for grants in order to do her own studies into the mysteries of amphibian biology in Boston, the National Science Foundation had passed her over, and Summer found herself casting about for a paying job. Ambrosia Pharmaceuticals, luckily enough, was looking for a frog expert to send on their expedition to northern Bolivia. A few months later, Summer found herself in the Valle de los Reyes, studying tree frogs, analyzing chemical samples, and being order to strip out of her clothes by an Indian chief.
Otoniel was there with her, of course, but he mostly looked powerless to refute Pachacamac's orders. Walter had hired Otoniel Sandoval in La Paz, as the young man had grown up outside of San Eduardo and spoke fluent Spanish, English, Quechua, and Huaca. Otoniel was more than just a translator, though, providing guidance to the cultures of the people they met in rural Bolivia, protecting them from overzealous soldiers at checkpoints, and otherwise acting as a general custodian for them at their camp in Valle de los Reyes.
While the three scientists had had little contact with the Huaca in their weeks since arriving in the valley, all three had expressed interest in visiting the local village of Hanan Pacha. It was close to eight weeks, however, before they made the two-hour hike through the Bolivian jungle to meet Pachacamac and his people. And then, in a little less than two hours, everything had gone to hell.
"Fuck you!" Summer swore at the chief, even if Pachacamac couldn't understand her. Turning her attention to Otoniel, she repeated the curse. "And fuck you, too. I'm not taking my clothes off for him."
"I told him that, Doctor Monroe," Otoniel defended himself. "But Pachacamac is standing by the letter of the law. You see, to expand upon the custom of livestock ownership -"
"No!" Summer insisted, glaring at the chief. "I don't care what the letter of law says. I'm not taking off my clothes."
"Summer-" the mestizo began.
"No! No! No! Look, we've already got the truck. And it's not like I'm going anywhere, like he needs to hold my clothes keep me from sneaking off, if that's what this is about." She glanced at the translator. "So what's the worst he can do if I don't comply?"
"If we were closer to La Paz? Litigation. Here in the Oriente, though, breaking a contract carries more strict penalties."
"Strict penalties like what?" Summer asked. Surely, Otoniel didn't mean that breaking a contract would be cause enough for taking someone's life...did he?
The grim look on Otoniel's face told her all she needed to know.
"So let me get this straight," the blonde said nervously, backing away from the Huaca chief and the translator both. "Walter is bitten by a snake, and is going to die. But in order for the chief here to take him to the hospital, I have to be 'given' to him like a shovel or a donkey. And then I have to strip naked, or else he'll kill me. Am I getting that right?"
Otoniel shook his head. "He'll kill me."
A couple of heartbeats passed as Summer took in their situation. There had to be another way out of this, something that wouldn't end in her completely au naturél or Otoniel walking around without his head. "Why?" she finally asked, breaking the silence. "Why does he want me naked?"