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Veil
Author: Eliot Peper

PROLOGUE

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Sweat stung Miranda León’s eyes. Breath came in shallow gasps. Mud squelched under her boots. Just after dawn and it was already forty degrees Celsius with ninety-nine percent humidity. Insects swarmed. The hot spot on her left heel chafed. She wasn’t as young as she once was. And yet, there was nowhere else she’d rather be.

Swiping a dirty hand across her forehead, she peered up at the receding back of her guide. The bright yellow soccer jersey hung loose across Gilberto’s narrow shoulders. He was nimbler in his plastic flip flops than she could hope to be with the best gear modernity could offer.

“Not much farther, Doña León,” he called back over his shoulder. “It’s just over the next ridge.”

Doña. She really was getting old.

Snagging the water from her pack, she stopped to take a sip. Jungle encroached on all sides, ten thousand shades of green bending, branching, reaching ever farther in an endless quest for light and water and nutrients—the basic ingredients from which life manufactured itself. How many undiscovered species called a single square kilometer of this tropical rainforest home? How many miraculous medicines might be derived from the biochemical exhalations of one of its undocumented leaves? How long did this rotting, teeming, fecund forest have before succumbing to the slash and burn of progress?

Stashing the water bottle, Miranda pressed on up the steep track. Her clothes were soaked with sweat. Her calves ached. Her spirit gorged on the lush fractals of gigantic ferns that had been gobbling dappled sunlight and releasing spores since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Sixty-six million years after an asteroid drove them to fiery extinction SaudExxon was consolidating global concessions and squeezing every last drop of liquified dinosaur from their graves to power the churning, commodified madness people called civilization. Humans were their own meteorite.

Damn. That was definitely a blister. There was moleskin in her pack but if she sat down to take off her boot right now, she might not get up again. She’d deal with it when they got back to the village.

She stumbled around a sharp bend and there was Gilberto, grinning at her like the teenager he’d recently been.

“Hijueputa,” she managed between panting breaths. “Is it always this hot?”

“Look,” he said.

She did.

They had reached the crest of a hill and through a gap in the foliage the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains stretched away to the horizon. Birds darted through the canopy. Mist daubed valleys like sculpted meringue. Unidentifiable animal calls formed a soundscape as rich and tangled as the ecosystem of this unique Colombian coastal range rearing up almost six thousand meters from recently submerged Caribbean beaches, little sister of the Andes and mother of thirty-six rivers.

“Hijueputa,” she said again, reverently this time.

Gilberto nodded, still smiling.

The epic view called to mind the epigraph of her work in progress—the description of a fictional astronaut’s view of the Earth from space, gleaned from a 1983 short story by Don DeLillo. Reading that story had reignited Miranda’s childlike curiosity, taking her back to the first time she’d gazed up at the stars through a telescope as a young girl, noticing their uniquely nuanced hues amidst the buttery glow of their respective galaxies, imagining the planets that danced around them and whatever beings might be gazing up into their own firmaments at the distant star around which Earth spun in all its verdant, multifaceted glory. At the end of the day, literature was nothing but a reminder that life was too big for language to contain.

Gilberto led onward. She had thought it would be easier going downhill but the rising temperature counterbalanced whatever respite descent had promised, and Miranda had to fight back dizziness as she focused on not tripping over rocks or slipping on roots.

Her previous books had cataloged humanity’s self-inflicted wounds. The failing crops and rising seas. The water wars and megastorms. The stateless refugees and smoldering wildfires. An endless stream of canny politicians, frustrated scientists, slick lobbyists, outraged activists, cynical industrialists, and everyone else just trying to do their best in a world that always seemed to lie just beyond the edge of comprehension.

If she didn’t have Santiago, Miranda knew she would be insufferable. The future belongs to the optimists, he would say. What future? she would reply. He kept her hopeful despite everything. She kept him grounded despite himself. They drove each other crazy and from their craziness had sprung one daughter, four-going-on-five books, and a trillion-dollar company.

This book, though… This book would be different.

“Da da da da,” sang Gilberto, spreading his skinny arms wide.

Huffing, Miranda stumbled up beside him. The sight took away whatever breath she still had. These weren’t trees. They were giants, monarchs, the ancient gods of this single, vast, variegated organism that humans called a forest. This stand of old growth monsters dwarfed the surrounding trees, forming a local mesa in the topology of the canopy that was so dense with other plants, animals, and symbionts that it made Singapore’s famous arcologies appear to be little more than abandoned warehouses in comparison.

Yes, this. This.

Miranda reached out and touched the knobby, cream colored bark of the rubber tree. The trunk shot forty meters up before exploding into a luxurious crown that permitted only fractional glimpses of the blue sky above. She inhaled deeply and the hot, wet, pollen-laden air was the greatest gift she’d ever received.

This book was her way of paying that gift forward. She was tired of playing Cassandra, of being the sailor pointing out leak after leak to a crew that barely pretended to listen. So instead of highlighting the mass delusion that doomed future generations, maybe she could seduce humanity into sanity via that most slippery and profound of emotions—wonder. Could she capture natural splendor in narrative and, in doing so, provide everyone a taste of the overview effect experienced by DeLillo’s astronaut? Could she craft a story that would burrow into readers’ minds and inoculate them against the manic consumption that was the endpoint of so many commercial, social, and political vectors? Could she make them see this tree for what it was, instead of only the latex it produced?

This was the most ambitious project she had ever attempted. It was why she was here in a remote corner of a Colombian jungle with nothing more than a local guide and an open heart. It was way beyond what she was capable of. But she could hear Santiago: The only way to find your limits is to assume you haven’t got any. She had poked him and told him he should hand over Interstice to a successor and start a self-help seminar. But she had started reading up on that initial intimation of an idea all the same, and the reading turned into notes, which turned into research, which turned into an outline, which turned into a proposal, which turned into her, here, now. If Miranda could accomplish even a vanishingly small percentage of her goal with this book, maybe Zia could leverage her soon-to-be-announced appointment as the youngest Costa Rican ambassador in history, recruit her friends from that elite Swiss boarding school, and force some common sense into the next round of UN climate negotiations.

See? Hope. Santiago would be proud.

“Ready?” asked Gilberto. “It’ll take us three hours to get back to the village and we need to get moving before it really gets hot.”

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