We had heard rumors about the place for years, and obviously dismissed them. When a surveyor actually found it and brought back pictures, we assumed he was playing a prank on us. But someone upstairs took him seriously and sent a science team, and they brought back samples. Now there was a new laboratory somewhere in the mountains.
Our little outpost was the connection between that lab and the outside world, and we were all trying to get a peek at the hermetically sealed containers that were being shipped out. Security staff weren't privy to anything that was going on. But six months later, I was rotated into duty at the laboratory, to escort scientists as they run their tests.
As you crest the ridge and enter the valley, the first thing you notice is that it is filled with beige trees with white leaves. The trees have bark made of keratin, making them uncannily smooth. The leaves of the trees are pale white and tend to droop. They are made of skin, albino skin, the better to absorb light. In spring some grow "flowers" made of fine eyelashes.
Squirrels climb with small hands and chatter with almost-voices. Sheep walk on their knuckles and grow thick coats of coarse human hair. There are no birds, but bats are everywhere, hanging from trees with wings like emaciated hands. Even snakes have scales like tiny fingernails. Every animal has human eyes.
During summer the smell of human sweat is inescapable. Even in the laboratory it seems to cling to everything. Only in our hermetically sealed hazmat suits are we spared.
I'm showing Jones how to put on his suit, making adjustments every time he does it wrong, which is every time. My job is to make sure he doesn't do anything stupid in the valley, which is usually easy. New guys usually just follow along in grossed out daze.
When we're over the ridge and begin descending, picking our way past thorny, bone-like shrubs and into the treeline, he begins breaking the unwritten rule for security staff and starts pestering the scientists. Luckily, Dr. Vasquez is willing to indulge his curiosity.
"There aren't any normal plants and animals at all?" asks Jones.
"None. Even the microorganisms seems to be descended from inhabitants of the human gut. Normal plants can't sprout here, and normal animals die of allergic reactions." says Dr. Vasquez.
"Its called allelopathy. These organisms all produce a protein that kills all non-human forms of life."
"That's why we have to wear these suits?"
"To protect us from allergens, yes. But also to protect the valley. We are genetically similar enough that diseases could spread from us to them."
We hear the sound of gagging and turned. Jones has taken off his facemask.
"It smells like sweat!"
"PUT YOUR MASK BACK ON!" I bellow, running.
Jones can't stop gagging, his throat is closing up. I wrestle his facemask on and open up the oxygen valve, but he is already slumping to the ground. Dr. Vasquez checks his vitals. Jones is unconscious, but not dead. He'll probably survive if we can get him back to the laboratory, but that means hauling him out of the woods, up the slopes, and back over the ridge, and we'll have to do it as fast as possible.
I hoist Jones on to my back, and, as I turn to Dr. Vasquez, I catch something out of the corner of my eye.
The first thing I saw was the eyes, and I think, for a moment, that they were a man's eyes. I almost call out to him, when I see the face. The body is shaped like a big cat, but it has the hairless skin of a human. Human eyes, wolf face, human skin, tiger body. It paces towards us carefully and confidently. We run, and somewhere along the way I drop Jones.