All characters, companies and events in this book are fictitious, any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
The Cloud Lily
The Cloud Lily clings to the grey stone, mist swirling among its sinuous fronds, biding its time in a cleft in the bare rock of the mountain top as its roots dig deep into the ancient skull of its prey for any last vestiges of food.
In 2016, a team of plant hunters working for the biotech giant, Midstream, embark upon a mission to the Cloud Mountains in search of new 'extremophytes', plants living in extreme environments. Novel plants could hold the key to medical breakthroughs and the creation of new medicines and so the competition is fierce to track down new species. Midstream specialises in finding, collecting and patenting plant genes from extremophytes found in some of the most inhospitable places in the world.
Professor Lacey Whorton-Ffynde, plant geneticist, runs Midstream Laboratories based in the Kent countryside, England. Her team of four plant hunters are selected across a spectrum of fields, headed up by Glenn Havener, mountaineer and survival expert. Dr. Chris Forster, plant hunter and mountaineer, Angelique Clement, polar explorer and climate scientist and Reginald Branch, veteran plant hunter are the other full-time members of the team. For the Cloud Mountains expedition they recruit a local support team and establish a base camp at the base of Nube Tepui, deep in the Venezuelan mountain plateau. Nube Tepui's sheer rock cliffs soar vertically some 5000 feet above sea-level, effectively cutting off the flat summit of the mountain from the rich forest below. The hope is, if the team can reach the previously unconquered summit, they stand to find a treasure trove of new plant species for Midstream. But the mountain is notorious for its violent weather systems and dangerous rockfalls, many have tried and failed to reach its summit and each year the mountain's death toll slowly rises.
Lacey Whorton-Ffynde quickly punches in the code for the wall safe in her office and pulls out a slim package wrapped in leather. She carefully unwraps the contents on her desk and, slipping on a pair of cotton gloves, carefully turns the yellowed pages of a old, slim herbal, dated 1559 and hand written in Spanish. The page she stops on shows a painting of a strange plant with flowing roots and thick stems supporting pitcher-like leaves and racemes of lily flowers, painted in the deep maroon of dried blood. Next to it is a name, 'Lirio de Nube' under which is a clumsily drawn skull. The Cloud Lily. As far as Lacey knows, the herbal is the only depiction of this plant, unknown and lost since a fateful expedition by Spanish botanists in 1559 into the interior of Venezuela. Only one survivor was ever found, three years later, mad and starving, wandering in the forests, still clutching the book. Over the centuries the book has been hidden away, passed through private book collections across Europe to finally find its way into the great library at Whorton-Ffynde Grange some time in the eighteenth century where it sat gathering dust until, Lacey, a young girl in search of hidden treasure in her family home, found it in the 1970's.
Her hope is this plant is real and still thriving somewhere in the Cloud Mountains. Her hope is it is indeed as poisonous as the skull suggests. It could be the medical find of the decade and catapult Midstream into one of the top biotech companies in the world. She runs a finger gently over the lily and smiles to herself, then quickly wraps the book up and replaces it in the safe. She checks the time, she should be able to contact her team by satellite phone at the base camp within the hour.
Glenn Havener's alarm on his watch beeps. The satellite will be in range. He strides over to the battery packs under the main awning and plugs his phone into one. As far Glenn is concerned, organisation is the key to success, so if he can charge his phone at the same time he is talking, all the better.
Angelique Clement watches Glenn from the field desk where she is organising an uplink to the satellite for a detailed weather report modelled on her computer for the next five days. Any longer than that and it is the meteorological equivalent of a guess. 'Are you waiting for a call from Prof. Wharton-Fiend?' she calls over, her Canadian accent noticeable in the mispronunciation of the name. Glenn chuckles, and replies. 'Were-Tun Fine! It's pronounced Were-Tun Fine! You've been with us six months and you still can't get it right.'
'Can you find out if helicopter retrieval will be possible if I can confirm a weather window?' She continues typing in their coordinates into the computer as she talks. 'Just to be on the safe side I'd like to see if we can airlift out any samples out as I reckon it's the safest way to maintain a biological quarantine.'
Glenn nods in agreement. 'I'll see what I can do. We can map an extraction point once we are up there and can see the terrain.... Hello? Lacey? It's Glenn, at base camp...'
On the other side of the camp, Chris Forster and Reginald Branch are organising the packing of collecting bags into their rug sacks.