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“The volcanoes aren’t going to explode today, are they?” a little girl asked, her large brown eyes pinned to the twin peaks: Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world, and Mauna Kea, which hadn’t erupted in more than four thousand years.

“If they even think about it,” Rachel Sherrill said, “we’re going to build a dome over them like we do with those new football stadiums. We’ll see how they like that next time they try to blow off a little steam.”

But not all the fifth-graders were laughing at the joke told by the chief botanist of the Hilo Botanical Gardens.

“Why is this tree turning black, Ms. Sherrill?” an inquisitive boy with wire-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose called out. 

Christopher had wandered away from the group and was standing in front of a small grove of banyan trees about thirty yards across the lawn.

In the next instant, they all heard the jolting crash of what sounded like distant thunder. Rachel wondered, the way newcomers to Hawai‘i always wondered, Is a big storm coming or is this the start of an eruption?

As most of the children stared up at the sky, Rachel hurried over to the studious, bespectacled boy who was looking at the banyan trees with a concerned expression on his face.

“Now, Christopher,” Rachel said when she got to him, “you know I promised to answer every last one of your questions—”

The rest of what she’d been about to say collapsed in her throat. She saw what Christopher was seeing—she just couldn’t believe her eyes.

It wasn’t just that the three banyan trees closest to her had turned black. Rachel could actually see inky, pimpled blackness spreading like an oil spill, some terrible stain, except that the darkness was climbing up the trees. It was like some sort of upside-down lava flow from one of the volcanoes, but the lava was defying gravity, not to mention everything Rachel Sherrill knew about plant and tree diseases.

She bent low to the ground and saw suspicious dark spots leading up to the tree, like the tracks of some mythical round-footed animal. Rachel knelt down and felt the spots. The grass wasn’t moist. Actually, the blades felt like the bristles on a wire brush.

None of the blackness had been here yesterday.

She touched the bark of another infected tree. It flaked and turned to dust. She jerked her hand away and saw what looked like a black ink stain on her fingers.

“These trees must have gotten sick,” she said.

As she ushered the kids back to the main building, her mind raced to come up with possible explanations for what she’d just witnessed. But nothing made sense. Rachel had never seen or read about anything like this. It wasn’t the result of the vampire bugs that could eat away at banyan trees if left unchecked. Or of Roundup, the herbicide that the groundskeepers used overzealously on the thirty acres of park that stretched all the way to Hilo Bay. Rachel had always considered herbicides a necessary evil—like first dates. This was something else. Something dark, maybe even dangerous, a mystery she had to solve.

When the children were in the cafeteria, Rachel ran to her office. She checked in with her boss, then made a phone call to Ted Murray, an ex-boyfriend at Stanford who had recommended her for this job and convinced her to take it and who now worked for the Army Corps of Engineers at the Military Reserve.

She explained what she had seen, knowing she was talking too quickly, her words falling over each other as they came spilling out of her mouth.

“On it,” Murray said. “I’ll get some people out there as soon as I can. And don’t panic.”

“Ted, you know I don’t scare very easily.”

“Tell me about it,” Murray said. “I know from my own personal experience that you’re the one usually doing the scaring.”

She hung up, knowing she was scared, the worst fear of all for her: not knowing. While the children continued noisily eating lunch, she put on the running shoes she kept under her desk and ran all the way back to the banyan grove.

There were more blackened trees when she got there, the stain creeping up from distinctive aerial roots that stretched out like gnarled gray fingers.

Rachel Sherrill tentatively touched one of the trees. It felt like a hot stove. She checked her fingertips to make sure she hadn’t singed them.

A voice came crackling over the loudspeakers—Rachel Sherrill’s boss, Theo Nakamura, telling visitors to evacuate the botanical gardens immediately.

“This is not a drill,” Theo said. “This is for the safety of everyone on the grounds. That includes all park personnel. Everyone, please, out of the park.”

Within seconds, park visitors started coming at Rachel hard. The grounds were more crowded than she had thought. Mothers ran as they pushed strollers ahead of them. Children ran ahead of their parents. A teen on a bike swerved to avoid a child, went down, got up cursing, climbed back on his bike, and kept going. Smoke was suddenly everywhere.

“It could be a volcano!” Rachel heard a young woman yell.

Rachel saw two army jeeps parked outside the distant banyan grove. Another jeep roared past her; Ted Murray was at the wheel. She shouted his name but Murray, who probably couldn’t hear her over the chaos, didn’t turn around.

Murray’s jeep stopped, and soldiers jumped out. Murray directed them to form a perimeter around the entrance to the grove and ensure that the park visitors kept moving out.

Rachel ran toward the banyan grove. Another jeep pulled up in front of her and a soldier stepped out.

“You’re heading in the wrong direction,” the soldier said.

“You—you don’t understand,” she stammered. “Those —they’re my trees.”

“I don’t want to have to tell you again, ma’am.”

Rachel Sherrill heard a chopper engine; she looked up and saw a helicopter come out of the clouds from behind the twin peaks. Saw it touch down and saw its doors open. Men in hazmat suits, tanks strapped to their backs, came out carrying extinguishers labeled cold fire. They pointed them like handguns and ran toward the trees.

Her trees.

Rachel ran toward them and toward the fire.

In that same moment she heard another crash from the sky, and this time she knew for sure it wasn’t a coming storm.

Please not today, she thought.

by by Michael Crichton and James Patterson

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316565075
  • ISBN-13: 9780316565073