“I was going to wear a uniform but it’s too hot.”
“Finn, you never wear a uniform,” Addie said. “Go to your meeting.”
They were both speaking quietly. Leah had muttered something about Ta’avi sleep schedules and headed off to bed.
“You’re sure you’re going to be okay?” Finn asked.
“Yep, I like her,” Addie said.
“I won’t be far if there are any problems.”
“You’re very cute when you worry. You won’t be far, so relax. Have fun.”
“This really isn’t a fun meeting. I’ll see you soon.”
The hatch opened and the humid air flowed in, a wet blanket wrapping around him. Finn climbed down and began to walk up the long slope toward the tan geodesic domes of the outpost. By the time he’d reached the first one, there was an annoying bead of sweat running down the center of his back. He’d debated wearing at least a uniform shirt for the meeting and was glad he’d gone with a plain t-shirt and shorts.
The habitat domes were laid out in a semi-circle, like most places. Usually the administration and community center was placed in the middle of the circle. The large geodesic was there but Owen had explained that the space usually used for the outpost’s offices had been used for a brewery instead. They’d opted to use a smaller habitat dome off by itself for the Administrator’s office. Finn was all in favor of beer but he thought it was kind of silly to separate the offices. But Utopianists did all sorts of strange things like that.
When the tsunami of evacuees began to reach Hub, all of the careful plans for the settlement expansion had gone out the window, along with the carefully prepared interim leadership. Before this, Hub had consisted mostly of the eight thousand construction workers, engineers, and planners. Settlers bound for new colony worlds would be temporarily housed and trained before going on to their destination world.
The system had worked well for shuffling people off to Eden but when the attacks on Earth began, the carefully constructed waiting lists had gone out the window. Transports had landed wherever there was room and taken anyone that wanted off the planet. The humans and their allies had moved roughly nine million souls. Finn was impressed by the pilots’ dedication. They’d flown evac missions until he bombardment of the planet was well underway.
They’d planned for the event but Hub’s Administration had been quickly overwhelmed by the massive influx of people. Finn had seen the last of the chaos when he’d finally gotten there.
He had already figured that good intentions and a plan couldn’t deal with panicked people but even he hadn’t been ready for the fires, smoke, and rioting. The Fleet personnel had been quickly overwhelmed and had requested help from the Commonwealth. Several Archreylen ships had appeared soon after, escorting a strange looking vehicle that ended up in a low orbit. A few hours later, the storms began. Cold rain and high winds had driven the now frightened rioters back to the modified cargo containers that served as temporary housing.
The Administration had gratefully accepted the help of different local leaders in bringing an uneasy peace to the colony. As always, the politicians had chiseled themselves permanent positions in the new Hub society.
And, as always, the people they “represented” had fragmented into various factions. One of the initially popular ones was the Utopians. Started by a cabal of scientists, free thinkers, and sci-fi writers, the movement was all about using the oppourtunity they’d been given to usher in a new age of plenty, where technology and progressive values could provide a better life.
The developing, and mostly dictatorial, factions had soon recognized the threat this represented and had brutally attacked the Utopians, both politically and physically. Hub’s administration had done what they could, but the movement had evaporated like cotton candy in a thunderstorm. There were a few diehards left, but the movement had mostly died out.
Finn was sympathetic to the idea of a leaderless society but decades in and out of pointless wars had given him a more realistic view of humans. When he’d read the brief on this place, he’d been surprised that there were enough of them left to set up their own outpost.
Owen was sitting on the porch of his office, talking to a group of children, when Finn arrived. Whatever he’d been saying was lost in the stir of the kids noticing him. Mostly they stared at him but a few waved and he waved back.
“Looks like you’re already busy,” he said to Owen.
“We were just finishing up,” Owen said. “Everyone, this is Captain Finn. He’s one of the people that Colonial Fleet sent to help us.”
Finn smiled at the expected chorus of “Hi, Captain Finn.”
“I was just telling them this was a bad time to ride bikes on the runway,” Owen explained.
Finn nodded. “There are still some ships coming in and they’re moving too fast to see anyone out there. As soon as everyone is here, someone will come and tell you. I bet the little folks on the Pioneer ships will be glad to meet you.”
“There’s kids on spaceships?” a small voice asked.
“Sure, that’s where their families are,” Finn said.
“The Captain and I have some things to talk about,” Owen said before anyone could ask any other questions. “You can all go early today, but don’t forget to finish your homework for tomorrow.”
There was a chorus of goodbyes and thank-yous as the kids got up and headed for the habitats.
“I’m also their teacher three days a week,” Owen said as he got up.
“Impressive, you’re a man of many talents.”
“Yes, I am. And none of them are teaching primary school. Come on out of that sun.”
Finn gratefully got into the shade and sat in one of the chairs. Owen reached into a insulated bag and pulled out a bottle of cold water, condensation already. He handed it to Finn who took a long drink. The water was so cold it made his teeth ache.
“That’s really good, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Before we start, I asked the Pioneers to send a representitive up as well.”
Finn laughed. “That’ll be interesting. Have you ever dealt with the Ta’avi before?”
“Ta’avi. They lost their planet too but not so many survived. Most Pioneers are Ta’avi family groups. They kind of invented the idea of the Pioneer teams.”
“No kidding. They didn’t even have accents.”
“There was a big refugee group on Earth. I laughed because the relationships between clans, families, and whatever else is tangled and complicated. They might still be figuring out who’s senior.”
“I think they figured it out,” Owen said, pointing.
Finn looked behind him and saw a familiar figure coming over. “How did you end up being the leader?”
“I brought a large hammer to the council meeting!”
Finn laughed and Tyohac slapped him on the back before he sat down.
“I take it you two are acquainted,” Owen said, handing the Pioneer another bottle of water.
“Finn here is my mostly useless little brother,” Tyohac said and took a long drink. “I’m surprised to see they trusted him with his own ship.”
Owen looked at Finn, eyebrows up.
“We flew together in the Defense and I was adopted into a Ta’avi clan. Fatso here wasn’t quite so thick back then, but it still took a crowbar to get him out of the cockpit.”
Tyohac laughed. “I still want to know who they built those things for. Owen, Finn here was my squadron leader, and he wasn’t too terrible at it.”
“What did you fly in the Defense?” Owen asked Finn.
“An AF-1. I’d prefer that not get around though.”
“A Redtail? I’m impressed,” Owen said. “Why don’t you want people to know?”
Finn wasn’t sure how to answer that. He started to explain but Tyohac interrupted him.
“See, Finn here is a very reluctant hero,” the Ta’avi said. “He’s not at all charming, or remotely handsome enough, and he’s ashamed of his tiny penis. So, no shit, real life Utopians. How the hell did you get this place?”
“What’s wrong with it?” Owen demanded.
“Nothing, that’s why I’m confused!” Tyohac answered.
“That’s true,” Finn said. “Erewhon is gorgeous,” Finn said. “The way the Utopians and the Resettlement Directorate bump heads, how did y’all manage to end up on a planet this nice?”
“Oh, that. Liz, the Administrator we lost, she was the leader of my sect on Hub. When they announced the colonial reforms, she somehow got us listed as a colonial corporate entity. There’s not much usable room here, so they put the smallest of the corps in the drawing and we happened to win.”
“That’s it?” Tyohac asked doubtfully.
Owen laughed. “Hell no, their arbiter found that we didn’t quite meet the requirements for diversity or something. After the third or fourth injunction, Liz managed an appeal to the Commonwealth. It was a Hail Mary but they actually got involved. It was decided we had won under the Resettlement Directorate’s own rules. A couple of days later, someone from Fleet showed up and started the colony briefings.”
“Where’s the name Erewhon come from?”
“Liz read a lot. Erewhon is the name of the first novel written about a utopia. It’s also the word nowhere spelled backwards, more or less.”
“It’s a one of the nicer ones I’ve seen,” Finn said and Tyohac nodded.
“Really? I thought Eden was supposed to be paradise.”
Finn and Tyohac glanced at each other, confused. Owen noticed the look.
“That’s where Fleet is based, right?”
“Where did you hear that?” Finn asked. “Eden is a no-go to anyone, other than terraform engineers.”
He looked between them, half smiling. “Come on, admit it. Eden belongs to Fleet, that’s why you never see Fleet around Hub. Everyone knows that.”
“Except Fleet, I guess,” Tyohac rumbled. “Unless you been holding out on me, Finn.”
“Never been anywhere near it,” Finn said. “Before this, we were doing assay on a proposed outpost that didn’t pan out. Before that, it was Celestial Reverie.”
“They just made it to colony status,” Tyohac said. “I give this one a lot of shit but Fleet takes their job seriously. You don’t see them because they’re only at Hub long enough to refit before they’re back out, chasing down another planet.”
Owen stroked his chin. “Hmm, they might want to get that information out to people.”
“There’s a bunch of Fleet at the base there,” Finn said. “When everyone started having fits about living space, Fleet agreed to move operations to the old Mayflower colony barge. It’s pretty awful, even by Hub standards.”
The Mayflower had been a single use transport, hauling the materiel from Earth to build the first phases of the Hub colony. Personnel hadn’t been part of the equation, so it had mostly been an immense boxcar. The most advanced thing about it had been the thrusters and the control AI. The thrusters had been crushed underneath the barge as it landed and the AI had been scavenged early on. The main colony had grown along a piedmont, slightly above the Mayflower. It was easily visible, Owen had seen the rusting hulk nearly every day on his way to the food distribution.
Owen chuckled. “Why does reality always fall short of expectations?”
“I think it’s called the human condition,” Finn said. “To completely change the subject, we read the sitreps on the way here but I don’t think we had them all. What was the origin of the staph?”
Owen sighed, smile disappearing. “Three different enviro units. It had to have come from Hub, the seals were intact on all the gear. Two of them were in the residential habitats, the third was attached to two workshops. It got all of our tech people within a couple of days. It spread, mostly to people that caught it from the first of the infected. Thankfully, it stopped there but we landed with two-hundred and fifty-four brothers and sisters. When the infection finally burned out, there were ninety-one souls left alive. Twenty-six of those are children, a few lucky ones only lost a single parent but most are the colony’s children now. There were two additional suicides but things have been more or less stable for the last season.”
“You’ve been dealing with all this?” Tyohac asked. “You have my respect. I can’t even imagine….”
Owen shrugged. “It was just something we had to deal with. The thing that has been making me insane is the Resettlement Directorate. They’ve constantly been up my nose about holding up the next wave of settlers. The rest of us are on a freighter somewhere waiting for us to get it together. But we can barely keep the lights on here, let alone prepare for another eight-hundred people.”
“You’re under quarantine,” Finn said. “No one is supposed to be headed here yet.”
“You’re kidding? That just means no one can leave. We’re supposed to be exporting sugar, it’s one of our crops, and they’re starting to get ugly about that as well. Nothing about the equipment that was promised but didn’t arrive, no recognition that there was a fuck up on their end that left us with an drug-resistant staph outbreak. No, it’s all Service For Humanity and their fucking schedules…” His mouth snapped shut and Owen cleared his throat, looking embarrassed.
“Wow, just a single F-bomb,” Tyohac said. “Don’t you worry, Owen. We’ll be here for the next eighteen months, we’ll have things ready for them. Are they doing the lightspeed time-jump thing?”
Owen was still embarrassed but looked interested. “I heard it was something like that. The ship’s relative time goes more slowly?”
“That’s how they do it,” Finn said. “A twenty-to-one compression velocity is pretty standard. For every twenty minutes here, one minute passes on the ship.”
“Is that how it works? I’m a complete noob at this stuff.”
“Personally, I’m glad you’re a noob,” Tyohac said. “I don’t have to make you unlearn a bunch of bad habits. What do you need from us?”
Owen thought for a few seconds.
“Habitats,” he finally said. “I wanted to be sure to wipe out any possible trace of the strep, so we destroyed the infected habs. It was a stupid move, now there’s barely enough for the people I’ve got left.”
Tyohac shrugged. “Not so much. Trying to sterilize one of those things would be a pain and even if you did it perfectly, no one is going to want to use the space. Did you save the metal pieces?”
Owen nodded. “And there’s five cargo boxes full or replacements. I don’t have anyone left from the original building crew and the specs leave important things out, like how to raise the main ring of the dome.”
“Yeah, I’ve been complaining about that since the start,” Tyohac said. “You need to have a crane, or at least a mech to pick it up. You’ve got mechs?”
“Two, but I’m not sure if they actually work.”
“Oh, they’re gonna work,” Tyohac said. “You got the best Pioneer clans now, we’ll get you back up to speed.”
Tyohac and Owen began discussing the other problems the outpost was experiencing while Finn listened. He noticed a beefy young man with a much older woman marching next to him. In spite of the heat, both of them wore black clothes with long sleeves. The woman had an ankle length black dress and the man’s long pants were tucked into work boots. He wore a wide brimmed black hat and his companion had an old-fashioned black bonnet covering her head.
“Neo-Puritans?” Finn asked.
Tyohac and Owen looked up. Owen sighed and stood up.
“What can I do for you, Brother Gavin?” he called.
The pair stopped at the stairs instead of getting into the shade.
“Allow me to present Sister Caroline and Brother Gavin,” Owen said. “This is Captain Finn Morgan and Chief Tyohac from Fleet.”
Neither of them lost the stony expression on their face, just nodded as they were introduced.
“Administrator Lykos, Sister Caroline asked me to speak on behalf of our community…”
“Our observances to the Lord were interrupted, Administrator,” the woman interrupted. “Our religious freedoms are being attacked. Your Compact assured us that our worship would be respected.”
“What happened this time?” Owen asked evenly.
“That unholy racket at dawn. It interrupted our morning prayers and…”
“Which ‘unholy racket’ was that?” Tyohac asked.
Sister Caroline turned a baleful eye to him. “You’re one of them, you know very well what you were doing.”
“What you saw is the Ta’avi Sun Greeting,” Finn said quickly, seeing the look on Tyohac’s face. “It’s part of their belief system.”
“There is only one true Lord and Savior.” Sister Caroline said, scorn dripping from her words. “Everything else are the wiles of the Dark One.”
“Sister Caroline,” Owen said. “The Compact protects everyone’s right to worship or not.”
“No, no, I didn’t agree to that,” she spat. “That was accepted by the others perhaps, but not the Faithful. Any more heathenish shouting will be dealt with harshly.”
Tyohac got up and Brother Gavin took a step back as realized how big the man was. Finn was bracing himself for some high volume yelling but the Ta’avi’s voice was calm, mellow even.
“And what does harshly mean, exactly?”
Her lip curled. “I couldn’t say. But I would not be surprised when the Faithful take up staves and axe handles to defend our religious freedom.”
“That is a threat of violence,” Owen said evenly. “I believe there’s something about that in the Compact as well.”
“Of course not,” Gavin said smoothly. “We are simply a group of peaceful farmers trying to make our way in a confusing time. It was just a misunderstanding, this time. Come, Sister Caroline, the Lord does not wish strife.”
She nodded and the two of them turned and left without saying a word.
“What maniac at Resettlement put your groups together?” Tyohac asked, sitting back down.
Owen shrugged. “Some kind of bureaucratic screw up. They were headed to an outpost called New Plymouth but the pods ended up on the wrong ship. They were all the way out here by the time someone figured it out. We have plenty of space so Ryan and Liz made a deal with them to stay. They preferred to have their own space but we’re lucky to have them. The bug didn’t spread that far, they were able to keep us going with fresh food.”
Finn looked at Tyohac. “Did you hear about this?”
“Not a word.”
“We get updates from other Fleet operations all the time,” Finn explained to Owen. “That kind of mix-up should have been headlines for a while.”
“And it’d be a big stick for Resettlement to beat Fleet with,” Tyohac said. “There’s no way at least some of our folks won’t greet the sun every morning. Probably not as many as this morning, new planets are always special events. I’ll talk to the other connies, get some of the calmer types to keep an eye out for trouble.”
“I appreciate that,” Owen said. “They don’t pay a lot of attention to me, being a gay Utopianist and all.”
“You said you had something for me?” Finn asked Owen.
“I was going to ask since you were the first one here, but I’ll leave it up to you. Liz was working to get the 10k maps completed. She sent out a team of four the day before the staph infections were discovered. They never came back. I wanted to try to recover anything…”
“Yes,” Finn said immediately.
Owen looked surprised but even Tyohac was nodding. “I didn’t realize body recovery was something Scouts normally did.”
“It isn’t,” Finn said. “But I was military before I came to Echo. No one should be left behind. Do you know which way they went?”
The Administrator nodded. “We know where they entered the forest. One of my people went out and checked to make sure it was still there. He said he could orange trail markers further into the forest.”
“Tomorrow soon enough?” Finn asked.
Owen nodded, still looking surprised. “I thought I’d have to talk one of you into it.”
“We’ll go if he doesn’t,” Tyohac said. “Everyone must be remembered.”
After working out the details of the mapping party as well as the promise of a ride out to the forest, Finn headed down to the geodesic that served as the outpost’s control tower. There weren’t any colonists around but a team of Ta’avi had the place opened up. He recognized the work boss from his time around the Ta’avi settlement at Echo and the man told Finn to look at whatever he needed to see.
The dome was divided into to large rooms. AI systems he’d seen on Earth had taken up an entire server rack but he didn’t see anything like that here. Still, he pulled covers off of every system he found, making sure it hadn’t been installed into other equipment. After two hours of searching, he still had nothing. Finn went back out into the blazing heat and climbed the tower for the antenna but nothing looked out of place. He wanted to take a closer look at the wiring harness but he began to hear a distant rumbling.
The Ta’avi work boss yelled up at him to get off the framework. Fat raindrops were beginning to fall by the time the two of them got back inside the dome. There was a flash of white light immediately followed by a boom that sounded more like artillery to Finn than simple atmospheric phenomena.
“Damn,” Yves, the work boss said. “Glad I got you down.”
Finn laughed. “Something that loud, I would have jumped straight into the dome.”
“What are you looking for anyway?”
Finn related the story of the attack on Addie and Yves looked confused. “There’s no AI here though. You could have just asked.”
“I thought it might have been divided into pieces and hidden inside of other stuff.”
Yves shook his head. “Wouldn’t work. The neural circuits have to be in close proximity, it has to do with sub-routine timing. There’s probably ways to get them smaller but you’re still be looking at two cubic feet of neural assembly. Let me show you something though.”
Finn followed him through the building and they took a short ladder down into the crawl space beneath the floor. Finn had already stuck his head down here but other than a junction box where the power cables entered the dome, there hadn’t been anything. Yves led Finn over to the junction box and pulled it open.
“I don’t know what that’s for,” he said, pointing at a thick black and yellow wire cable. “Best guess is that it was for some kind of auxiliary power for a future project but it’s weird that they’d use something rated this heavy. It comes out of an underground conduit by the antenna and splits. One leg runs up into the antenna array. The other leg ends here. It’s not an AI, but it’s strange.”
Finn bent closer and looked closely at the high voltage attachment. Yves started to warn him about touching something powered up but Finn was already picking up the heavy power coupler. It lifted easily off the thick cable.
“What the shit are you thinking?” Yves yelled. “You could have killed both of us!”
“Nope,” Finn replied, handing him the upper half of an empty coupler fitting. “Someone was sloppy and didn’t make sure the bottom half was attached.”
“How about you warn me next time, Finn? I about crapped myself just now.”
“Sorry,” Finn said, not sounding at all sorry. He pulled out a flashlight.
Both men leaned closer to look. Instead of heavy conductor wires, there were half a dozen fiber-optic cables disappearing through the back of the metal box.
“I wonder where those go,” Finn said.
Yves held up a hand. “Don’t start pulling on shit, okay? I swear, every one of you pilots is crazier than the last one. Your phantom AI might be at the other end though.”
Finn put the coupler back in place. “I can’t think of a reason to hide one, can you?”
“What does the Admin guy say?”
“That they never got an AI.”
Yves whistled. “I can’t think of any good reasons to hide one. I don’t know what you’d do with it though.”
“Crash incoming ships maybe.”
Yves looked at Finn like he’d just said something obscene. Finn figured that maybe he had.
“Can you keep this from your guys? I don’t want to tip anyone off.”
Yves nodded. “I have to tell the chief, but Dina can keep her mouth shut.”
“I’ve got to head into the forest tomorrow for corpse recovery, we can figure out what to do with it once I’m back.”
“I’m going to keep a heavy bolt cutter nearby, just in case.”
“A shotgun would probably work pretty well,” Finn said as they crawled back to the ladder.
Yves muttered something else about lunatic pilots and Finn had to keep from laughing.
The next morning, Finn and Leah went over their gear again, making sure they had everything.
“If they’re dead already, I don’t understand why you have to go find them.”
Leah smiled and put her hand on the bulkhead. “Addie.”
“I know, we talked about this already but I’m scared to be here alone.”
Finn sat down in the pilot’s chair. “You’re not alone, sweetheart. Bunjil and Xerxes will be here in a few hours.”
“Xerxes is always too bossy,” the ship grumped.
“She’s older than you are,” Finn pointed out.
“But what if you die out there and never come back?”
“Then you’ll have to be very brave and help your new pilot,” Finn said. “But we already decided that I’m too mean and ugly to die.”
“And you haven’t shown me an Immelmann turn yet,” Leah said. “I’m coming back because I still don’t believe you can do it.”
“The UTV just pulled up, you’d better go. I want you both to be extra-careful, okay?”
“I promise, again,” Leah said, holding up her right hand.
Finn threw his pack over one shoulder and followed Leah to the hatch. He stopped and put his forehead against the bio-sensor there.
“I’ll be very, very, extra-careful. Okay?” he murmured.
“I’ll be here keeping the lights on. I wish I could go along.”
“I know sweetie, but you don’t have shoulders to carry a backpack,” Finn said.
The ship blew a raspberry and Finn and Leah laughed as they left the ship. The ladder folded up as Finn stepped off and the hatch swung closed. They turned around to see a familiar face waiting in the quad.
“Don’t you have better things to do?” Finn asked Tyohac as they put their packs in the back.
“I’m here for her, not you,” Tyohac said. “You can walk your ass out there for all I care.”
“Don’t put me in the middle of this,” Leah said, climbing in the back.
Tyohac handed each of them an insulated cup.
“Don’t tell me you’re drinking coffee now,” Finn said.
“That stuff is disgusting,” Tyohac said. “That’s black chai tea, give it back if you’re gonna start bitching, Pirate.”
Finn took a long sip. “Thank you, Flytrap.”
They traded a complicated handshake and Tyohac headed through the colony.
“What’s with the Flytrap and Pirate?” Leah asked.
“Call signs,” Tyohac rumbled.
“I’ve been Pirate since OCS,” Finn said. “Flytrap here kept quoting WKRP at people but there was already a guy called Fever flying recovery.”
“What’s WKRP?” Leah asked.
Tyohac looked at Finn, who shrugged.
“So, what time do you have to have her home by?” Tyohac asked.
“Oh, curfew is at half-past kicking you in the head,” Leah said brightly.
Both men laughed and Finn looked around as Tyohac drove through the outpost. back up toward the outpost. The giant Quonset garage had the doors open wide and he could see people moving around inside.
“That’s why I came to get you,” Tyohac said. “None of their quads are running. Don’t know what they were thinking, even in paradise you still need to plug the chargers in.”
All three of them raised their hands in a wave as they passed Owen.
“Was he actually smiling?” Finn asked.
“Probably gas,” Tyohac replied.
Finn had seen plenty of forests, back when there was still a place called Earth. It was simple to go in; at some point the grass ended and the trees began. Getting into Erewhon’s forest was a lot more involved. The grassland ended at a twisted wall of roots that matched the tree’s immense size. The smallest one he saw was at least two meters thick. From there, it was impossible to guess at the thickness, the roots twisted around each other and were half buried in the soil. The mat ended at the grassland and was easily twenty meters higher in places.
Fluorescent orange marker tape had been tied off at one of the lower edges and they found the climb up surprisingly easy. He turned and waved to Tyohac who beeped the horn and drove back towards the outpost, almost invisible from here. They moved into the shade of the trees, more than happy to get out of the brutal sun.
From a distance, the forest had reminded him of the Pacific Northwest but with closer inspection, it really didn’t look familiar at all. Whatever they were, the lower gravity and high humidity had grown some truly spectacular organisms. The first example was easily twenty-five meters across the base and the crowns he’d seen on the bumpy ride down had easily been two-hundred meters up. The orbital survey had measured even larger specimens further from the outpost.
Of course, these weren’t really trees as they’d existed on Earth. Last night, he’d been catching up on what scientific work had been done with the forest. The bark was incredibly tough, laced with a natural mineral lattice. That was as far as the original Scouts had gotten, whatever was hidden beneath the bark was impervious to any kind of mechanical cutting or sawing. After the initial samples, no one had bothered with the trees much. It was obvious that they weren’t going to be a source of timber for the colony and there was more important work to do.
The most alien thing about them was the regularity of each tree. The trunks supported several tiers of branches, from the massive structures near the base, to the more familiarly sized branches in the crown. Each of the branches were spaced evenly around the main trunk. There were six near the bottom, the middle carried eight, and the highest points supported twelve.
Then there were the leaves. Different types were found on each tier, narrow pine needle types at the top, growing gradually wider as they got lower. The lowest of the canopies, twenty or thirty meters overhead, had octagonal leaves that had more resemblance to giant lily-pads than anything he’d seen in a forest. The regular spacing and intermeshed branches made for a very efficient system of harvesting sunlight.
The little sunlight that made it this far down, made a twilight that was much cooler than the open area. There was also a light breeze that seemed to flow down each of the trunks. The lack of light prevented undergrowth, although there was a moss analogue that covered the roots and trunk bases.
Finn climbed higher up an immense root that looped over the others. The bark had an almost sandstone-like texture under his hands and he easily made it to the top. Leah followed and from the higher vantage point, he could see further into the endless expanse. The roots continued to twist and twine over each other, more like an chaotic ocean frozen in time than a forest floor. In a few places there were gaps in the canopy, allowing shafts of sunlight to reach the ground. Tendrils of mist were illuminated in the golden light as they flowed and twisted toward the ground.
“Holy Mother of Mercy,” Leah said quietly.
Finn nodded agreement, stunned at the surreal beauty.
They spent quite a while on top of the root, staring at the scene in front of them. Finally, they climbed down. There was an arrow, made out of more marking tape, pointing deeper into the forest.
Leah hiked the heavy pack higher and tightened the straps. “I guess we better get to work.”
Ten hours later, they were still finding the arrows. Both were pleased, though neither would have admitted it. The longer it took to find the missing survey team, the longer they could spend in this strange wonderland. Moving across the root mat was easier than it had looked but they’d quickly learned to avoid the mossy surfaces. Whatever the stuff was, it was slick as wet ice. Finn’s tailbone ached from the long slide he’d unintentionally taken. Leah had called down to him, making sure he was all right. Finn called back that he was and a moment later she came sliding down, grinning from ear to ear.
Finn had shaken his head but she saw that he was actually smiling.
It grew steadily darker as the afternoon wore on and they started looking for a camping spot while they could still see. They’d occasionally heard streams but hadn’t seen any water on the surface. Then they came across a tiny stream, no more than a few meters across. They followed the flow as it wound its way between and under the roots and soon they found a small cove created by a bend in the root. Three meters below them, the floor was pale sand a couple of meters above the stream.
“That would be perfect,” Leah said. “I bet we can even tie off the hammocks with a little extra line.”
The hammocks could be used as tents but Finn hadn’t been looking forward to laying on the rough roots. They climbed down and soon found places to suspend their beds from. The hammock was a little wider than a twin bed and was covered by an attached canopy and bug screen. He tied his back, they hadn’t seen anything moving down here the entire and he doubted much rain would make it this far.
After they’d both finished their notes on the day there wasn’t much else to do. Leah read something on her tablet while Finn sat sideways on the hammock, rocking it back and forth as he looked up at a tiny chink of evening sky, far above them.
There was a strange sound from behind him, something he remembered from a long-ago trip to SeaWorld, the sound of something big displacing a lot of water all at once. Without thinking, he was on his feet and turning to face whatever it was.
A mass of black tentacles was pulling itself up out of the stream. The appendages were easily as thick as his waist and their center, he glimpsed a maw lined with black blades. The tentacles weren’t waving around like a thousand horror movies had shown. They were snaking across the ground toward him, pulling the slug-like body onto the bank of the stream.
Something in the back of his mind gibbered that the stream was too small to hold a nightmare like this. He heard a short scream from the other side of the cove as he dragged his pistol out, already knowing that the 9mm was useless. He’d probably need a .50 to even dent the thing. A quick glance to the side and he saw that Leah’s side of the cove was already covered by the tentacles but there wasn’t a sign she’d even been there.
Finn knew then that he’d finally come to the end of his life. Still, his hands went through the familiar litany of movements. Slide back, then slamming forward. Safety off, muzzle coming up. The pistol bucking slightly in his hand as he fired. Even the report of each shot was puny in the face of this thing. The tentacles shivered as the rounds hit them but hardly paused.
Addie is going to be so pissed at me.
The slide locked back on the empty pistol. Finn wondered if he should have tried to get away. The thing probably moved faster than he could climb anyway. As he threw the useless pistol at it, the calm, annoyingly analytical voice in the back of his mind wondered if he’d be ripped apart or dragged across the waiting blades first.
Then something grabbed his arm and shoulder, startling him. It was a huge hand, the size of a truck tire, pulling him up onto the top of the root, up into safety. He was dumped unceremoniously there as whatever had grabbed him vaulted past in a blue-gray blur. It dropped down onto the tentacles, its arms, too many arms, stabbing and swinging. His ears were pierced with hot needles and Finn clapped his hands over them, trying to block the sound.
As fast and big as the tentacle slug had been, it was no match for whatever had grabbed him. Less than a minute after he’d seen the thing come out of the water, the creature that had saved him was at the edge of the stream, holding what looked like a pair of oversized machetes. The body of the river thing was just disappearing but it had left pieces of itself behind. On the ground was the tip of one tentacle and several unidentifiable slimy chunks.
Then it everything was silent again, the quiet returning with surreal quickness. The other creature used two thick limbs to jump onto the root beside him.
“Are you okay?” a voice asked from behind him.
Finn whirled to see Leah behind him. Her face was pale but otherwise she looked fine. The creature looked from Finn to Leah and then back.
“I thought it had grabbed you,” he said.
Leah shook her head. “Our friend pulled me up just as that thing came out of the water.”
Finn got to his feet slowly. The aftereffects of the adrenaline were making his legs tremble but he managed a bow to their rescuer. It was looking down at them both, a being he’d never seen, or even heard about before.
At first the multiple arms had made him think of a giant spiders but the impression had been wrong. If anything, the creature was was closer to the shape of a mantis. Four legs, thick and heavily muscled, gripped the root beneath it. The end of the legs were heavy pads. They were attached to a long torso with massive joints.
The head and shoulders were more in a human scale. The head was set atop a long flexible neck with a triangular face, reminiscent of the elfin Xero’pah. Its eyes were matte black set in a face that was roughly the same size as his own. It blinked several times and Finn saw that the lids flickered out from the sides of the eye socket. A longitudinal ridge ran from the top of the head to the chin, giving it some semblance of a nose with a squarish, lipless mouth above the chin. At first, he had thought it was two colors but now he could see that the chest was wrapped in cloth with a complicated looking harness over that.
The larger arms slowly put the machetes in sheaths on the harness. Then they folded behind the creatures torso, on the top side of the leg joints. The creature slowly lowered itself into a crouch in front of them and held up its human sized front arms, hands empty and spread wide. They were much larger than his own with seven fingers and a long opposable thumb on either side of the palm.
Whatever it was, it was a tech user. The probability that it had saved him for its own dinner decreased but other risks…
“I greet you with peace, here at the joining place of our paths,” it suddenly said.
Even though the voice was sibilant and the words were clipped short, Finn didn’t have a problem understanding. He relaxed slightly. If it spoke English, it had to be in contact with the Commonwealth. That meant the Other was probably the equivalent of a Scout for its own people. He wasn’t looking forward to writing this discoveryup.
“Are you an English speaker?” it asked them.”Francais? Español?”
“English is fine,” Leah said. “Sorry, the last few minutes have been…”
“Surprising?” It actually nodded in agreement, a gesture that looked odd on such an alien frame. “I, too, was very surprised to see where you decided to sit. You do not know the danger here? This place is …unwise? Perilous? I do not know the proper word usage. When the dark comes, scavengers will emerge. The entity from the wet is one such. Do you comprehend?”
“Where would be a safer place?” Leah asked.
The creature gestured upwards and Finn wanted to groan. They should have been able to get into the trees with rope and boot spikes but they’d been in his pack. He glanced over the edge but other than tentacle bits, the sand was empty.
“Our climbing equipment was taken,” Leah said.
“Yes. It was a foolish place to sleep,” the creature said. “I will carry you to safety after I ask your permission to touch however.”
“Thank you,” Leah said. “Our weight won’t be too much?”
Both humans blinked as a strange scent entered their noses. Spicy, a bit like peppers mixed with something indescribable.
“I will carry you. The touching?”
“Of course,” Leah said.
Finn knew it was a bad idea to be completely in the creature’s control but he didn’t have much of a choice. The immense arms unfolded again and gently picked Leah up and held her against its back.
“I will quickly return for you,” it told him.
It climbed up the nearest trunk, as easily as Finn could walk on level ground and disappeared up into the gloom. He sat down, still shaky, and wondered how much trouble they’d fallen into.
A few minutes later, there was a scuffing noise as the creature came down the trunk head first. Finn got up and after it had gotten his permission “to touch” it picked him up the same way it had picked up Leah. Slowly and gently, the arms folded over him. There was a sense of reassurance he didn’t understand. They were in deep shit here.
The reassurance became amusement. Then Finn realized he was feeling the creature’s amusement, the thoughts subtly different than his own somehow.
“You would be deep excrement if I were not as quick.”
He snorted a laugh at the truth of that. The creature moved up the trunk of the tree effortlessly and Finn craned his neck, trying to see.
“Not the time for wriggling.”
Finn had to agree with the truth in that as well. Darkness was complete under the trees but it began to lighten as she climbed.
Maybe it was his imagination but the creature felt female to him. She moved quickly along the horizontal lower limbs, making several small jumps from tree to tree. A few minutes later, she clambered on top of some kind of platform and set him on his feet near Leah. Finn was almost disappointed the ride was over.
“Thank you for saving our lives,” he said.
The creature shrugged, a motion that looked very strange on her body. “The female one has thanked me already. This is my life’s purpose but I accept your thanks.”
“My name is Finn Morgan. We are members of the Commonwealth Alliance.”
“You can not hear my name in your ears,” she said. “But there is a many-armed goddess in your culture called Lakshmi. I like the feel of this word in my mouth and offer it to you. I am of the Great Falls Meeting and serve Elder as a listener of the hoom in the…I do not know the exact words, I will study my memory later. For now, I must hunt and eat. I will return in time.” Finn nodded but she was already sprinting across the platform. At the edge, all four legs flexed, pushing her up and out over the edge. Watching, Finn’s heart leapt into his throat but Lakshmi’s immense arms had already caught a large branch. Swinging to the top of it, she sprinted again and jumped to a higher branch.