The walk in, while fraught with nerves on all sides, was uneventful and quick. After the long slog around the perimeter of the grove, even Tonly felt surprised to tell the others, “It’s safe now. We’re past the last of the tendrils.”
“Seriously?” asked Lily. She tensed a moment, then stepped out of the path he had made. When her feet stayed firmly on the ground, she walked up next to him to peer ahead.
The forest looked much like the lasher-ridden growth they had just walked through, at least at first glance. On closer examination, though, it was clear that the blue-green trees here were dead, hollow and leafless.
“Did the lashers do this?” Lily asked, laying a hand gently against the nearest trunk. A flood of tiny crawlers covered her hand and she jerked back with a cry, shaking and swatting to get them all off.
“Lily?” Sephilla and Cavish kept their distance, waiting for her to ask for help or warn them off.
Tonly, though, stepped forward to take her hand in his, hushing her even as he blocked her frantic swats.
“Shh…” A moment later, the tiny orange bugs gathered in the palm of his hand, and he poured them gently back onto their tree. “Sky-krill,” he said, almost lost in the wonder of feeling them all around him, in their millions. Now that he knew, it was easy to feel the difference, but they flowed through the husks of the trees just like the sap of healthy growth, mimicking it so closely that it had fooled him.
“She should let them take her.” The voice that had haunted them before was back. “All of them should. That’s the why we let you bring them in.”
A human form dropped to the ground in front of them, landing in an easy squat. Her skin was almost the same color as the blue-green’s bark. “Welcome back.” She grinned lasciviously at Tonly, then looked past him, her eyes locking on Sephilla.
“Nile,” Sephilla growled. “How…” She walked forward, and the stranger rose to meet her standing.
As they faced off, neither one speaking or looking away, it dawned on Tonly how alike they looked in spite of Sephilla’s darker skin, and why the stranger’s voice had seemed so familiar.
Then Sephilla’s hand moved, and the sound of a slap rang out. “How could you?” she snarled. “How could you abandon us? How could you let me think you were dead? What have you been doing for the past six months?”
The other woman laughed, grinning mockingly. “And what should I have done, sister? Cowered in a cave while aliens took over my world? Aided the enemy? I think only one of us is in the wrong here.” She reached a hand out, pausing when Sephilla flinched, and then gently laying skin against skin. “But all can be forgiven. Will you join us?”
“Who is us?” Sephilla asked, warring emotions making her voice hoarse.
Nile’s face seemed to glow with joy. “We are Verdant.”
Oh cat… why must we wage this battle every few months, where you decide we have to get up when you want us to, and we argue that you don’t have the right to be our alarm?
But, got a little writing in this morning, at least. Only a little, though, because *TIRED.*
Good to get some writing in early, since The Secret World launches today for pre-orders, and I promised myself I’d write first on any day that I play.
Sephilla sighed, staring back toward the lasher grove. “All right then, let’s go see what’s in there.”
Lily starled her with a boisterous hug, grinning fit to burst.
“You’re all insane,” Sephilla said again, but she was smiling as she said it.
Tonly took the lead, trying to go slowly enough for each of them to step only in his own footprints. The trail was still as clear as day, pulling him forward. Fortunately, the trek around the perimeter of the lasher grove had given him practice balancing his mind between that strange, intoxicating sense of the life all around him, and acting as an aware, rational human.
Now that they were on the path forward again, his emotional hyper-awareness of his companions faded, and he realized something odd.
The humans behind him were fainter to his new life-sense than anything else in the forest. He could tell where they were, but not clearly. Not like the spoat, above and to the left, which lay quiet in the maw of the lasher that had captured it. He could tell that it had struggled, and that now it was resigned, exhausted, and waiting for death.
Its emotional state was as clear as its physical presence, once he turned his attention to it, but his fellow humans were simply there, and barely that.
Were they blocking him somehow? He decided not to mention it for now.
A whole scene or so!
The glances continued, and Tonly focused as hard as he could on finding any sign of the trail he had followed before, but there was nothing. He saw the trails of spoats and near-boars, and the innumerable skitterings of chikchiks and their brethren alternating effortlessly between ground and trees. Once, he even saw spoor that he could have sworn belonged to one of the rarely seen ligers, but there was no sign of human passage beyond that of his companions.
His shoulders hunched, and he kept his eyes on the ground, avoiding even catching the others’ body language out of the corner of his eye. What must they be thinking of him? It had taken so long to earn Sephilla’s trust and friendship. Weeks of encountering each other in the greenhouse and the fields, while she slowly started answering his questions about the native plantlife and ecosystem with more than monosyllables.
When she casually mentioned planning a new survey, he had itched to ask to join, but resisted the urge, sure that it would only offend her. Then she, just as casually, asked if he’d like to come along. He had been over the moon, even more than when he first stepped through the portal to Verdant.
Then he missed it.
And now, they must think he was leading them on a wild goose chase, maybe on the Governor’s instructions. Sephilla would never trust him again…
A sudden awareness jogged him out of his morose thoughts, and he looked up to see his trail, clear as day to that extra sensation that still felt like sight. “Here!” he shouted, looking down the trail into the lasher grove. There was something else, though, another trail following over the older sign.
He looked back the other way, and saw more trails stretching back into the forest and arcing away to skirt the lasher grove.
“This is where we started,” Cavish snapped, disgust clear in his voice.
“Tonly, are you sure you didn’t see this trail anywhere else? Somewhere further back?” Sephilla’s voice was gentle, as if she was coaching a particularly slow child.
He shook his head. He couldn’t have missed something like this, no matter how distracted he had gotten.
“That’s it, then,” Lily said. She pursed her lips, staring into the grove. “Either we go in, or we call it quits and head home.”
“Tonly, it’s a lasher grove, a big one. It might be the biggest I’ve ever seen.”
Sephilla was still using that soft tone of voice, and he realized she was trying to break it to him gently that they were giving up.
“I’m going in,” he said, starting to work his tether’s fastenings loose. “I have to know.”
“It’s suicide,” she snapped.
He paused, feeling lanced through by the heat of her gaze, but then he shook his head and pulled another lace loose.
“He came back once,” Lily said.
“He can see where the tendrils are,” Cavish said. “If we followed in his footsteps…”
“You are all insane,” Sephilla growled.
Another lace came loose, but Cavish walked up and pushed Tonly’s hands aside so he could redo it. “Better keep this on, just in case. If I stumble, I’m counting on you to bring me back to the ground. All right?”
“All right,” Tonly said, smiling cautiously up at the other man. Realizing how hunched he was, he tried to straighten his back and shoulders.
“That’s better,” Cavish said, slapping his shoulder. “Lily? Want to hook up to me?”
Lily scowled, shaking her head. “You know I can’t do that.”
Tonly knew, at least. Sephilla had given him all the safety lectures, and the graphic evidence backing up each regulation, back when she’d been planning to take him on a routine survey. No untethered work in unsurveyed or dangerous areas. No solo work in the forest ever.
He steeled himself to look at her, expecting another death-glare. Instead, she was staring toward the lasher grove, looking almost wistful.
“It would be irresponsible,” she said, but she sounded uncertain.
“More irresponsible than leaving this mystery unsolved?” Cavish seemed to be trying for casual, but his body was tense.
Sephilla shot him one of her sharp looks.
Cavish raised his hands in mock defense. “I’m just saying what you’re thinking, boss. And if you need an excuse to be ‘irresponsible,’ how about this: why did the Governor set Tonly up for this, and what did she expect to get out of it when he came back? If we can’t stay a step ahead of her, pretty soon Earthcorp is going to have this whole planet buttoned up, and us colonists will be nothing but slave labor. Right?”
Sephilla glanced at Tonly and raised her eyebrows.
Cavish shrugged. “I figure at this point, he’s one of us.”
Tony nodded when she looked back at him. “I’m so far out of compliance with the contamination protocols that they couldn’t let me back into the main dome even if they wanted to.”
A little smile crossed her lips before she snapped back to being stern. “That’s not the same as being one of us. I’m sure the Governor would make an exception if you dug up enough dirt on us.”
Tonly chewed at his lower lip, thinking. She didn’t sound like she really thought he’d do that, but as one of the colony’s leaders she had to worry about things like that. But she was giving him a chance, if he could figure out how to explain.
“I’ve always loved plants,” he started. “Right from my first pansy, when I was three or four. But I’ve never felt them the way I can feel them now. It’s like I can almost talk to them, if I can let go of my animal thought patterns enough.”
He laid a hand on the trunk of the nearest tree, feeling the sap moving through its phloem. It felt like happiness. After a moment, he shook himself, remembering that he had been saying something. It took another moment to remember what, and then he grinned, looking around at his fellow colonists. “There’s no way you’re getting rid of me now. I belong to Verdant.”
It’s almost bedtime, and I haven’t written yet. Probably not going to either…
I need to figure out getting back to writing in the morning, I think, before my mind is full of the day.