Natural Selection

A Novel

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By Dave Freedman

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A shocking biological discovery. A previously unknown predatory species. Evolving just like the dinosaurs. Now. Today. Being forced out of its world and into man’s for a violent first encounter. Weaving science and thriller in a way not seen since Jurassic Park, Natural Selection introduces a phenomenally dangerous new species that is rapidly adapting in a way never before seen. A mystery. A chase. A vast expansive puzzle. A team of marine scientists is on the verge of making the most stunning discovery in the history of man. In their quest for answers, they engage a host of fascinating characters. The world’s premier neurology expert. A specialist on animal teeth. Flight simulation wizards, evolution historians, deep sea geologists, and so many more. Along the way, the team of six men and women experience love, friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Together, they set off to exotic locales. Literally to the bottom of the ocean. To a vast and mysterious redwood forest. To an unknown complex of massive caves. When people start dying, the stakes are upped even further. Then the real hunt begins. . . . Loaded with astonishing action sequences, Natural Selection is that rare breed of thriller, filled with intricately layered research, real three-dimensional characters, and tornado pacing.

Excerpt

PART I




CHAPTER 1

CHAD THOMPKINS took a breath of the fresh sea air. Oh yeah, he thought, this is why I became a lawyer—to buy myself this kind of freedom. He took another breath and let it out, long and slow. Chad was thirty-two and had just purchased a new forty-foot cabin cruiser. Along with his wife; his pal, Dave Pelligro; and Dave’s new girlfriend, he was cruising out to Clarita Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, on this sunny June day. They were forty-five minutes into the one-hour trip from Newport Beach. The sea was fairly flat, tiny waves here and there, and they’d arrive soon. They had already passed the better-known Catalina Island, and Chad could see their destination in the distance. The plan was to work on their tans, then settle down for some lunch, though Chad was getting a little hungry already.

“Get me a sandwich, will you, Gabby?”

On a molded seat, his wife gave Chad an angry I’m not your maid look. But she tossed him a Saran-wrapped turkey and mayo anyway. “Here you are, Your Majesty.”

He chuckled. “Thanks, Gab.”

“Nice, huh?” Dave Pelligro said to his date, Theresa Landers.

In a tight sky-blue top, white shorts, and too much makeup, Theresa surveyed the water. “Beautiful.” She turned to her host. “Thanks for having us, Chad.”

“Glad you guys could make it. I’m sure I would have been bored if it were just me and Gabby out here.”

Theresa shook her head. She didn’t like Chad much. He was an arrogant preppy in a red polo who didn’t wear sunglasses. But it was his boat, and she’d never “lunched” off Clarita Island before. She looked forward to getting there.

WITH THE exception of a small tourist area with restaurants, docks, and a beachside bar, the bulk of Clarita Island was undeveloped, overrun by trees and thick shrubbery. Clarita’s western shore, mostly jagged black rocks, was downright desolate. Miles away from the clattering human noise of the island’s eastern side, it was barren of people, the only sounds from the wind and tiny breaking waves.

Gliding on a current of air, a seagull appeared from behind the trees. A couple hundred feet high, the bird flew over the dark ocean and looked down, scanning for fish.

It saw absolutely nothing.

And yet something was there. The bird had missed them. They were perfectly still, just below the surface, watching it.

The gull spotted something and dove down. It plunged quickly, but then, just yards from the water, veered off. It had seen a strand of kelp, long and greenish brown, and mistaken it for a fish. Carried by momentum, the tiny flier ripped across the water, unknowingly passing a single pair of black eyes. Then it passed a second pair. Then a hundred. But still, nothing moved. The eyes simply shifted as the little feathered body tore past. They were all watching it.

CHAD THOMPKINS cut the gas, and the boat came to a bobbing stop. They were a few hundred yards from Clarita’s main docks, where the mammoth Clarita ferry had just deposited the latest batch of tourists, mostly families with obnoxious kids. To the right of the docks, Chad eyed a beach slightly larger than a Wal-Mart aisle, jam-packed with out-of-shape sun worshipers. He found it unappetizing, to say the least. “You guys don’t want to stop here, do you?”

Gabby, Dave, and Theresa all shook their heads.

Chad nodded. “My thoughts exactly.” The lawyer hated crowds. As he started up the boat, he looked forward to the solitude of Clarita’s always-deserted western shore.

THERE WERE more of them. Another hundred had crept up from below, joining the ones that were already studying the seagull. They still didn’t move. They just watched the bird glide above the waterline.

Then their eyes shifted. From behind the trees, two dozen more gulls flew out over the water, also scanning for fish.

Looking down, the birds saw nothing but empty seas.

Then one of the creatures below them moved. From ten feet down, it swam toward the surface, a winged ray, flapping much like the birds themselves. A second creature rose, then a third. Then a hundred.

They ascended quickly all at once, shot clear out of the ocean, their bodies flapping frantically in the air.

There were so many that they were difficult to make out precisely. They were thick little animals, larger than the gulls, jet-black on their tops, gleaming white on their undersides. In the air, their wings moved much faster than in the water, their flapping rapid and uncoordinated. They rose to various heights, none more than ten feet, then belly flopped right back in. Then they leaped out again. Then again and again and again.

As the gulls watched them, their tiny hearts were beating faster than normal. They were birds and had bird brains, but on an instinctive level what they were seeing made them nervous. The strange creatures from the sea were trying to fly.

“WHERE THE hell is it?”

Chad Thompkins had been to Clarita’s western tip before, but he still didn’t see the familiar rock outcropping.

Dave Pelligro smiled at his date. “We’ll get there soon.”

Theresa nodded, eyeing the tree-lined shore. “I’m not in a rush.”

But Dave was in a rush, or at least his stomach was. Gabby had made some special salami, ham, and cheese sandwiches just for him, and he couldn’t wait to devour them. He squinted behind his ninety-dollar sunglasses, trying to see the western tip. “I think I see it.” It was just off the black rocks, right near the pack of seagulls.

But then Dave saw something else. Something leaped out of the ocean then flopped right back in. A single animal. He squinted anew. What the hell was that? A jumping fish? He walked to the bow and pulled off his shades. Only birds were there now. He decided not to mention it.

As they motored closer, Gabby eyed the seagulls herself. “Keep away from those birds, Chad. We don’t want them pestering us.”

“Yeah, I wish I had a gun.” And the pseudoyachtsman meant this; the damn birds were in the exact spot in which he wanted to anchor. But as they rumbled closer, the birds scattered, and Chad didn’t consider why. “Hey, Dave, get the anchor.”

“OH MAN, I’m stuffed.”

They’d just finished lunch, and Dave Pelligro was proud of how much he’d eaten. Standing next to Chad, he glanced at Gabby and Theresa, in bikinis now and stretched out on lounge chairs in the back of the boat. “I could go for a little sun myself.”

Chad nodded. “Go ahead. I’ll be there in a sec.” He wasn’t in the mood to tan yet. As Dave joined the women, Chad leaned over the guardrail and stared at the sea. It felt good to get away from the office. He blew out a deep breath and watched the tiny breaking waves. He didn’t notice the wind pick up.

THE WINGED creature was fifteen feet below the boat, its horned head pointed straight up. Its eyes were wide open, but it didn’t see Chad. It didn’t even see the boat. It was blind. A mutant gene had led to the deficiency, just as it occasionally did in humans.

The creature was by itself now, every one of its brethren long gone, many thousands of feet away. This one hadn’t leaped from the sea earlier because it hadn’t been able to. With all the churning caused by the others, it had become disoriented and literally couldn’t figure out which way was up. But it had a sense of direction now. It could feel the wind.

It began to rise. Slowly at first. Then much faster.

I HOPE the wind dies down, Chad thought, eyeing the ripples as a gust blew his collar back. He suddenly squinted. What is that? It was something ten feet down. He leaned over the guardrail to get a better look.

It looked like a pair of beer bottles. Litterbugs, he thought. But then he saw the bottles were rising. Rather fast. Wait, they weren’t bottles at all. Jesus Christ, they were eyes!

He jolted away frantically.

Noticing, Gabby rose from her chair. “What’s wrong, honey?”

Dave stood. “You OK, Chad?”

Chad backed away as fast as he could when suddenly a thick winged ray shot out of the sea. It simultaneously caught the wind, then, out of control, blew straight toward him.

Trying to get away from it, Chad backed up faster but tripped and fell.

The thing rushed closer.

He tried to get up but couldn’t.

It was going to land on him. . . .

And then it did. Catching his arm and the deck.

“Jesus!” He yanked his arm away but quickly realized he was all right. Breathing in gasps, he just watched it.

They were all watching it.




CHAPTER 2

DAVE PELLIGRO thought it was a cool-looking creature, its entire body—horned head, torso, and wings—a single, seamless aerodynamic form. Flat on the white fiberglass deck, it looked like one of those black army planes he’d seen pictures of. What were they called again, stealth bombers? This thing was a miniature version, albeit with horns the size of shot glasses sticking out of its head. It had the rough dimensions of a fat Sunday paper, nearly as thick in its middle, its longest side across the wings, which tapered to cardboard thickness at their tips.

It didn’t move. It simply lay on the textured white fiberglass.

Dave had never seen anything like it. “What the hell is it?”

Chad rubbed some slime off his arm. “Who cares what it is? Just throw it off my boat.”

“I’m not picking that thing up.”

They all slowly circled it, maybe ten feet away. Gabby stepped closer, peering down. It was a tough-looking little thing, muscular and solidly built, maybe twenty pounds. She surveyed its entire body when she noticed its eyes. They were the size of golf balls, cold and black, lodged in deep sockets at the base of the horns. They were horrifying eyes.

How come it’s not moving? she wondered. Was it dead? She leaned in even closer and studied the skin. It was jet-black and slick, like wet vinyl. “It’s pretty cool-looking, isn’t it?”

Then she heard something. It was making a noise of some kind, and she tilted her head curiously. “What’s that sound?”

Chad felt nervous. His wife’s face was getting close to it and he gently tugged her arm. “Just get away from it, Gabby.”

Dave suddenly leaned down. “I think I hear it too.” He stepped closer, listening. The creature was emitting a wheezing sound, labored but slow and steady, apparently coming from underneath it. Dave dropped into a push-up position and watched it from another angle. The little form was gently rising and falling. He studied it for several moments then stood, visibly stunned. “Jesus Christ.”

Chad turned, annoyed. “What?”

“I’m not sure but it looks like . . . It’s breathing.”

“It’s not dead. Why shouldn’t it be breathing?”

Dave gave his friend a you’re-a-moron glare. “Because fish don’t breathe air, Chad.”

“Maybe it’s still removing oxygen from the water in its gills.”

Dave turned to Theresa, surprised by the sophistication of her comment. “What?”

Theresa inched toward it. She’d been watching the creature more closely than anyone. “I think it’s some sort of ray.”

Theresa was the youngster on the boat, her college days only a few years behind her. A University of Southern California grad, she’d once taken a course called Introduction to Oceanography and Ichthyology. Oceanography referred to the ocean’s physical geography; ichthyology, to the study of fish. The creature on the white fiberglass was definitely some sort of ray, Theresa knew. Rays were cousins of sharks. Most rays were docile except electric rays and stingrays. But Theresa was certain this animal was neither of those. She didn’t see a barbed tail. Many rays looked like disks or tiny flying saucers, with varying degrees of thickness. They varied tremendously in size. Some were huge, literally as big as small planes, others smaller than a human hand.

I’ve got a pretty good memory, Theresa thought, congratulating herself. She didn’t recognize this particular ray, but there were tons of different species. This one was certainly thick. Her eyes settled on the horns. Unlike those on a kid’s Halloween devil costume, these horns didn’t stick up and out of the flattish head. Rather, they were parallel to it, flat against the boat deck and part of the body’s same seamless form. The horns looked familiar, but Theresa couldn’t say why. She again noticed that the creature didn’t have a tail, so it definitely wasn’t a stingray. How harmful could it be?

“Why don’t we just toss it back in?”

Chad nearly laughed. “Be my guest.”

Theresa shrugged. “I don’t think there’s much to worry about.”

Dave and Gabby shared a look. Yes, Theresa was a crazy woman.

“Most rays are docile,” the crazy woman said. “I’m sure it will be fine.” She circled behind it. Then reached toward its back.

Dave watched her warily. “You sure you wanna be doing that?”

Her hands moved closer. “We’ll find out. . . .” Her fingernails were about to touch it.

Suddenly it spun around and its jaws snapped open and instantly thundered closed.

“Jesus!” Dave yelled.

“Oh my God.” Theresa couldn’t believe it. The animal had moved so quickly! Voom! She didn’t know rays could move that fast. It was perfectly still now, and she focused on its mouth. She hadn’t noticed the mouth earlier. Its opening was a slit the size of a stapler, massive in proportion to the body. And its bite hadn’t only been vicious but powerful. Theresa hadn’t noticed any teeth—she remembered that most rays didn’t even have teeth. But even without them, its bite had been so strong it could have broken her fingers.

Gabby stared at her hand. “Are you all right?”

Theresa checked that all five fingers were in fact still there. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Suddenly the creature leaped up into the air.

“Oh my God!” Gabby slammed back into the railing, nearly falling overboard.

But the animal simply fell back onto the deck, landing with a wet thud.

On its back now, its underside was even whiter than the fiberglass.

Dave Pelligro studied it anew. The mouth’s slit looked very large indeed, maybe larger than a stapler. And the stomach was slowly moving up and down, in harmony with the wheezing sound. The damn thing looks like it’s breathing to me, Pelligro thought.

The creature suddenly leaped up again. It nimbly flipped in the air, landed rightside up, then once again, didn’t move.

Dave, Theresa, and Gabby just stared at it, anxious to see what it would do next.

Chad had another reaction. “That’s it, I’m killing this damn thing. . . .” He walked to the bow to find something to whack it with. But then he paused. What’s it doing now?

The little animal was rapidly flapping its wings, whacking them hard on the deck like a loud jackhammer.

Dave just watched it, amazed. Jesus, the damn thing’s trying to fly.

And failing miserably. It showed no sign of lifting off.

The animal seemed to realize the same thing and abruptly stopped.

It’s been out of the water at least five, maybe ten minutes, Theresa Landers thought. How can it survive that? And how did it move its wings so quickly? Theresa had seen rays swim before, and they always moved very slowly, like birds in slo-mo. She supposed, however, that when their wings were only pushing against air, they could move much faster.

The animal moved again—sort of. The muscles on the left side of its back suddenly seemed to rapidly flex, and Theresa watched them. Wow. She’d never seen muscles move like that, almost like superfast rippling waves. Boy, were they fast! Then the muscles on the left side stopped and the ones on the right began. The process repeated itself. Theresa just watched, fascinated.

Then, very quickly, the muscles froze and the body’s front half lifted off the deck until the horned head was completely vertical. Then the animal effectively stood there, about a foot tall, its front half in the air, its back half flat on the white fiberglass.

It looked quite menacing and Theresa got the hell away from it.

But the ray didn’t budge. It simply remained where it was, like an upright seal or a stiff jack-in-the-box. Looking at it, Theresa remembered that many ray species didn’t have spines. Their entire bodies were made of cartilage that made them extremely flexible. A stiff jack-in-the-box indeed.

The wind started gusting, and the horned head slowly turned.

What’s it doing? Theresa thought. She wasn’t sure but it looked like . . . Did it sense the wind?

The shifting head froze, and then it happened.

In a surprisingly fluid series of motions, the creature leaped off the deck diagonally, pumped its wings, and, with a touch of luck in the timing, caught the wind and . . . flew. Flapping frantically and lacking body control, it headed straight for the guardrail, smacked into it, and tumbled into the sea.

Everyone rushed over to try to see it.

But there was only dark water. The animal was gone.

Suddenly Dave squinted. Did he see a second one? No, he didn’t think so. He slowly looked up at Theresa, astonished by what had just happened. “Do you believe what we just saw?”

Theresa didn’t answer. She just gazed at the water.

But Dave was dumbfounded. “That thing flew, for Christ’s sake!”

Theresa turned to him, visibly stunned. “It did. It really did.”

“Wow,” Gabby said simply.

Chad marched to the head of his vessel. “Yeah, really incredible. A jumping fish, up in the air for a whole second. You guys call Jacques Cousteau; I’m out of here.”

As Chad turned on the engine, Theresa wondered if she actually should call Jacques Cousteau. Or at least the closest thing to him. Eighteen months earlier, she’d visited a brand-new manta-ray aquarium in San Diego. The visit had been a big disappointment—there hadn’t even been any mantas—but if the place was still in business, she wondered if she should discuss the afternoon’s events with someone there. She decided on the spot. She’d go. Theresa loved puzzles, and she wanted an answer to this one right away.

What the hell had they just seen?




CHAPTER 3

SO IS what I saw of interest, Mr. Ackerman?”

Harry Ackerman, fifty-two and rail thin, looked up from a note-filled legal pad and focused on Theresa Landers, sitting on the other side of a small brown wood desk. Theresa had come to this massive complex of aquariums, once known as Manta World, to describe the ray she’d seen off Clarita Island to whoever would listen. A bored UC San Diego girl, chomping on bubble gum and obviously working a summer job, had started writing down Theresa’s statement when Ackerman had overheard and taken over.

Ackerman was practiced at taking statements and questioning people. He hadn’t interrupted her. He’d simply let her talk and written down every single thing she’d said. He dismissed the crazy parts, about the flying and possible breathing, as exaggeration. People regularly exaggerated when they retold a story they were excited about.

Ackerman was actually excited himself—though he didn’t look it. Harry Ackerman rarely looked excited about anything; it just wasn’t in his character. With the exception of an antique Patek Philippe watch with lots of Roman numerals and a $62,000 price tag, he didn’t look like a multimillionaire either.

He’d started to take her statement because he’d been bored. Theresa was an attractive young woman in a too-tight all-white outfit and too much makeup. But looks aside, Ackerman had just assumed she was another loony. They regularly came into most marine facilities claiming they’d seen this fish fly, that fish breathe, or that sea monster playing cards. The statements were always outlandish and very comical. And that was why Ackerman had spoken with her. He’d been reading debt covenants, trying to find loopholes that could allow him to desert Manta World’s lenders legally, when he’d decided he’d needed a laugh. Theresa had indeed given him one, at least with the flying and breathing parts. But then a funny thing had happened. As she’d continued, she’d started to make sense. Ackerman was no expert, but the animal she described in vivid detail sounded like it might somehow be . . . significant.

“It most certainly is of interest, Theresa. I have some questions if you don’t mind.”

Theresa nodded. She wasn’t sure what she thought of Harry Ackerman. He sounded nice; it wasn’t that. It wasn’t his attire either. Khakis and a button-down; who could argue with that? His eyes had something to do with it. They were cold eyes, dead too—even when he was silently laughing at her. He hadn’t laughed out loud, of course, but Theresa knew he’d found her amusing. Given what she’d told him, she hardly blamed him. But he wasn’t laughing now, not even silently—Theresa could tell. Something she’d said had caught his interest. She thought he was way too corporate to be a marine biologist, yet he seemed to know his stuff.

“Ask away.”

“You said it was black on its top and white on the bottom?”

“That’s right.”

“Pure jet-black and pure milky white—you’re sure?”

Theresa thought for a moment. “Yes.”

“No shades of brown or gray?”

“No, none.”

“No stripes or dots or other discolorations?”

“No, nothing like that.”

She didn’t change her story, Ackerman thought. He’d asked her the same questions several times, and she’d come back with identical answers. She had a good memory and wasn’t making this up. Exaggeration perhaps, but not outright fantasy. What had she seen out there? The coloring she’d described was classic manta ray—numerous physical traits were also—but several details didn’t fit. She’d said the animal didn’t have a tail, and mantas almost always had tails. Many other physical characteristics didn’t jibe either.

Harry Ackerman stroked his cleanly shaven chin. He didn’t like mysteries. He preferred things to fit into neat, clearly defined packages. Frustrated, he glanced down at something.

What’s he looking at? Theresa wondered. She could see it was something beneath the desk; it looked like—

“Are you a marine biologist, Mr. Ackerman?”

He glanced up, and the eyes seemed to chill further. “I’m a lawyer by training actually. Now—”

“A lawyer? How did you get into this?”

“I’m on the board.” This was sort of true.

Theresa nodded and looked around. They were seated in Manta World’s massive east wing. She couldn’t believe the size of the place, with towering ceilings and wide spaces that made a shopping mall look small. Except for the two of them and the bored college girl gabbing on the phone at another small desk, the place was empty. There wasn’t even a sign out front anymore. There certainly weren’t any manta rays. Theresa stared at the biggest fish tank she’d ever seen in her life. It was literally the length of a football field and the height of a three-story building, filled with turquoise water and nothing else.

“They all died.”

She turned. “Excuse me?”

“The mantas. They all died. We don’t know why, we just couldn’t keep them alive.”

“Oh.” Theresa stared at the tank anew. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s still very sad.”

And Harry Ackerman meant that. He wasn’t on Manta World’s board; he was the board. Ackerman was a patent lawyer by training, but at the height of the late-nineties dot-com boom, he’d done what others had. He wrote a business plan on a cocktail napkin, created an Internet company, and took it public. The goal had been to create a legal marketplace, an online subscription service that lawyers across the country could use to share information on cases. The company IPO’d for $1.8 billion, and while it went bankrupt just nine months later, the investment bankers had their fees, and Ackerman had obscene amounts of money, $500 million after taxes. Rather than buy a pro basketball team or sailing crew, he invested his money, and not necessarily wisely. He put massive chunks into a handful of the era’s other hopeful high-tech ventures, including a fiber-optic company, as well as Manta World. None had done well.

But besides money, what Ackerman also craved was respect from a group of people who didn’t dole it out easily. Despite his success, none of the real players at the dozen charitable foundations and golf clubs that he and his wife had joined would give him the time of day. This elite group of entrepreneurs, real-estate moguls, entertainment CEOs, and hedge-fund managers hardly spoke to him. In their eyes, Harry Ackerman was nothing more than another dot-com idiot who’d gotten lucky. They were always polite but brief in that typical CEO style Ackerman despised. The message was clear: he could join all the charities and golf clubs he wanted, but he wasn’t in their club.

Ackerman longed for the day when he would be, when he and his wife would casually stroll into a thousand-dollar-a-plate black-tie charity ball, and heads would quietly turn. Isn’t that Harry Ackerman? Then all the fancy types would jockey to meet him for a change—to ask him to dinner or discuss investments and his favorite flavor of ice cream.

The Manta World project had been a disaster from the get-go. Five years old and counting, it was almost dead, even though Ackerman still had a handful of marine biologists under contract. They were on the ocean in tropical Mexico now, still with the nominal goal of trying to make it all work. Ackerman had been in salvage mode for months, but maybe, just maybe, this woman could help take things in another direction. But he had to be sure. “You said it didn’t have a tail.”

“Correct.”

“No tail of any kind, not even a little stump?”

“No, nothing.”

Ackerman nodded. Still sticking to her story.

“And it wasn’t more than a foot across the wings?”

She nodded.

“You’re sure? It wasn’t, say, three or four feet?”

“No. I remember it distinctly—it was as wide as a phone book is long.”

Again, exactly what she’d said before. “And you said it was . . . stocky?”

Genre:

On Sale
Jun 6, 2006
Page Count
432 pages
Publisher
Hachette Books
ISBN-13
9781401384586

Dave Freedman

About the Author

Dave Freedman was born and raised in New Jersey and currently lives in Southern California with his wife. He earned a Bachelor of Science from Princeton and his Masters from Harvard University. Natural Selection is his first novel.

Learn more about this author