“It’s the Great Beings’ toys we’re playing with here in the first place.” Kazdrin at length heeded his friend’s advice, and put the piece of machinery down. Though his curiosity was still not sated, and the device had looked to be broken anyway. He answered his friend without glancing back as he continued to explore the room. “Relax. You came all the way up here, so why start being scared now?”
“Because ever since you dragged me with you on this “little hike” as you called it, we’ve had to brave blizzards, evade enhanced wolves, and trudge through deserts; not to mention all the traps inside this maze!”
“You said yourself that I’m great at puzzles. Those traps were my specialty. And you call this a maze? Anyone could find their way through to here.”
“Well I thought we were lost half the time,” said Matix. His personality always amused Kazdrin, who was actually surprised when Matix accepted his offer to travel beyond the White Quartz Mountains, far away from their home in Tesara. Although he always insisted that he had been unwillingly pulled into it. Matix was not as surprised that Kazdrin would propose such a journey. Anything could arouse the Agori’s curiosity, and this time it had been a weird piece of metal with a red star and directions on it, directions that had ultimately brought them here.
Kazdrin picked up a sealed vial of some kind of silvery liquid. He sloshed the contents around as he scrutinized it. Walking over to Kazdrin, Matix rolled his eyes. “Do you have to collect samples? It’s not like anyone’s going to disturb this place. It’s probably been abandoned for eons.”
“Which makes it all the more exiting!” Kazdrin replied as if he had found a deposit of exsidian. “Hmm, says Protodermis. Wish I knew what that was.” Stowing the vial away in his pack, his attention was drawn to a large mechanical device with wires trailing from it to the ceiling. It was a half-cylinder, with its inside exposed. It was just big enough. How lucky the Great Beings had left in such a hurry as to leave all this technology! With blissful abandon he began examining the towering whatever-it-was, and by sheer wild luck he flipped a lever on the wall behind it.
“I’m just saying that you’ll never get any of this to work anyway-”
Lights came on all around, and the large machine started to make whirring and buzzing noises. It made such a din that Kazdrin could barely here his friend say “What are you doing now!” A smiling Kazdrin beckoned Matix to come inside the device. It was just big enough to fit both of them. “Look at this,” he said, and pointed to a panel mounted on the inside wall of the cylindrical machine. Lighted buttons covered it. “You want to be the first to press one of these things?”
Matix’s jaw dropped. “What?”
Kazdrin pressed the topmost button. The electrical sounds grew louder. “Next one?” he asked Matix.
“Now don’t you even-” Kazdrin just sighed and pressed the second button, cutting off Matix now for the second time in as many minutes. The sounds stopped abruptly, the lights fading with them.
Kazdrin was slightly disappointed, but laughed and finally turned to his friend. “There, now that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
An unbelievably blinding light, pain in his extremities, and then the blackness before a bad dream.
Waking up didn’t hurt at all. But moving did. The numbness in Kazdrin’s arms and legs was replaced with jolts of pain and muscle spasms. At first he thought he was still blacked out, or something was really wrong with his eyes. But as they adjusted he realized that it was only a dark night outside, with no moon. As the Agori slowly felt his faculties of movement returning, he took time to study the star strewn blanket of sky, which he noticed was partially obscured by foliage all around. “Must be a forest,” he thought.
The light-dotted sheet above did not render so simple an answer. None of the constellations were familiar, and one of the planets hanging there was larger than anything he had ever seen in the sky. Unpleasant thoughts came to his mind.
Once Kazdrin was able to walk around, Kazdrin tried to gain his bearings. Thankfully the treetops were not so thick as to block out all of the starlight. There was the usual forest flora all around, nothing that would make a good landmark. The only noticeable thing was that all of it was a strange bluish color, though he first thought it to be just the light. He still had his pack with him, containing a few days’ supply of rations, a thornax launcher and…
As he fumbled around in his pack the vial of silver liquid fell out and broke on the ground and spilled on a fern. It was one of its kind that closed in response to any touch, which it did now; not that that kept the protodermis from covering it. Kazdrin sighed, but, ever an optimist, concluded that his new situation was far more important than a small find back… back at the laboratory. He now realized what had happened. The machine was a teleporter of some sort, and now he and Matix were here, wherever “here” was.
Had his friend made it? Were they even transported to the same location? Kazdrin hurriedly looked about him. His companion was nowhere in sight. But he had to do something besides just stand there. Making out a rocky outcrop in one direction a fair distance away, Kazdrin began walking. Behind him, the fern withered.
Observation was part of Kazdrin’s makeup, so he often stopped to look at things that caught his eye. Being teleported who knew where didn’t change this in him. He was quick enough to spot several species of animals in and among the trees; most scurrying away when he came near, some coming tentatively closer to sniff him. Some were ape-like; some had the features of the iron wolves he had encountered on his recent “hike”. None were threatening. But they were bizarre in one way.
Many he found seemingly hugging the trees. They clung to a tree, eyes shut, suspended from the ground with their arms wrapped around the tree. Kazdrin was able to examine this phenomenon further when he caught one of these sleeping animals detaching from its tree. When he looked, he saw a knothole right where the creature had clung. When he felt inside, there were what felt like… wires! Not synthetic wires, but organic ones. An image went through the Jungle Agori’s mind of a creature plugging in to a tree, like a machine to a power source. He didn’t know whether to be revolted or- no, he went with revolted.
After a few minutes walking, the rock formation became fully visible. Towering twenty feet high and about as twice as much from end to end, it was the first thing to stand out in the topography of the forest; so Kazdrin decided a leisurely stroll around it. There were plenty of rocks around, and when he suddenly tripped and fell flat on his face, he was about to hurl the guilty stone that had perpetrated the deed away. Except it wasn’t a stone he had fallen on.
The broken pottery shard was like any other he had seen, but the mere fact that it was made by an intelligent being made it a novel discovery in that wild forest. He couldn’t understand the markings, but was that the marking of the familiar red star or was it just a spot of rust? He didn’t have time to think over this curiosity, because at that instant someone tripped and fell over him.
“Ow! Hey, watch where you’re- Matix! Is that you?”
“Kazdrin, oh thank the Great Beings you’re alive! You don’t know how hopeless I was of seeing you again.”
“You? What about me, mate! And here I was just lookin’ around and you come and fall right over me. Now that’s luck.”
“Ha, just like you to be investigating when neither of us knows where in Bara Magna we are. How long have you been awake?”
Kazdrin rubbed his head where his friend had bumped it. “I guess about an hour. Er, Matix I think I have to tell you something. I don’t think we’re not Bara Magna.”
Matix looked as if he was going to object, but then he sighed resignedly. “I was coming to the same though. I’ve just been avoiding it till now I guess.” Several silent moments went by, soaking up the shock of being completely and utterly lost. “So now we know what that device did, don’t we?” There was a slight hint of reproof in his friend’s voice, but Kazdrin knew he had that coming by rights anyhow.
“Yeah, and it’s my fault. But don’t rub it in, all right?”
“Never,” Matix said, smiling. “Hey, what were you looking at anyway? You know, when I stumbled on you.”
Remembering his find, Kazdrin held up the piece of pottery. Matix examined it with apparent glee.
“At least we know there’s someone here. But I don’t know if they live in this forest or not.”
Matix pulled out of his pack 2 plants, both cut right down the stem and leaf. Kaxdrin had forgotten that his companion was quite biologist. “I’ve dissected a dozen, well thirteen to be exact, species of plant life in this forest. Guess what they all have in common?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Kazdrin was stuck for an answer. “They’re all… blue?”
“No, no, no. Look, When I examined the first sample, I noticed that the rate at which the sap flowed through the plant was very high, and it was in bursts, almost like blood-flow. And when I went to cut open a seemingly different plant altogether, it was the same. So I went to another. The same. I kept on doing this until I dissected two at the same time. Guess what?”
“I don’t know. What is it professor?”
His friend glared at him for a second, but his excitement was not to be abated. “The pace, the actual beat of the flow, was the same!”
Kazdrin was starting to get bored. “And this means…”
“This whole forest, if it can be called that, has to be one plant; or a super-organism.”
“Wow.” Now that wasn’t boring.
“And this theory fits with those creatures hooking themselves up to the trees...” Matix let out a shudder.
“Yeah, they give me the creeps too. Doesn’t make me want to spend the night in this jungle. You know,” hooking his thumb around the boulder, “there is a cave ‘round the back of this thing. It doesn’t go very deep, but it’ll do as shelter.”
A quick glance at the plug-in-trees behind him decided it for Matix. “Sounds good to me.”
Kazdrin woke with a start, and the bad dream started. No, it couldn’t be a dream. There was Matix beside him, the “trees”, and the sky was still that alien sky, and he had just woken up, so he wasn’t dreaming. It didn’t take much to wake Matix.
“Huh, wassat? Oh, Kazdtrin. Let me go back to sleep, it’s still dark.”
“No, it’s dark again. We must have slept through the day.”
“Oh great, that’s just great.”
Kazdrin’s natural optimism returned with his smile. “Yep. And you know what’s greater? We get to travel out in the forest tonight. Isn’t that great?”
“You’re joking this time right?”
“Well, do you want to just sit here and waste our provisions or try to find whoever lives here?” the incorrigible Jungle Agori said laughing out loud.
Striking out into the forest didn’t dampen Kazdrin’s spirits at first. True, he didn’t know what direction they were going in, but he had no choice, as there was no way to tell which way was which. Only when they had been walking for about ten minutes did he realize with great unsettlement that they had no way to get back to the alcove. He cursed himself silently for not thinking to mark the trees along their way. But he said nothing of this to Matix.
Soon Matix spoke up. “Does this place look different to you, Kazdrin?”
Smiling again, Kazdrin answered, “No different than the last fifty bios of forest.”
Matix shook his head. “No, I mean different from yesterday, last night I mean. I think the color of the trees has changed, In fact all the plant life I think.”
“Really, I can’t see them that well.”
“That too. I was able to see around well enough last night because…” Matix Looked up. “Because I could see the sky. Now I can’t.”
His friend was right. He could no longer see through the treetops. They were too thick, much thicker than the night before.
“And that’s another thing; the color of these trees has changed, but look.” Stopping by a tree, he scraped his hand across it. Its skin, for lack of a better word, came off in his hand on touch. “It’s dead, they all are. They’re not bright blue anymore, they’re a pale yellow. How can their foliage grow thicker if they’re dead?”
After a moment of silent thought, “You said this forest was all one kind of big creature?” asked Kazdrin with a blank look on his visage.
“Yes. What is it?”
Kazdrin made no reply. Before them lay one of the more ape-looking creatures on the ground, dead. The tree nearest it still had the organic wires hanging out. The creature had the sickly yellow hue. Whatever had killed the plants had killed this poor animal too. Neither of the companions made any remark on this. They just kept finding body after body. Kazdrin simply kept on walking trying to figure out what the Skrall was going on. He went on like this until he heard the chink of glass against a metallic foot. Looking over at Matix, he saw that his friend had found the broken protodermis tube. The fern was there, withered and pale yellow. Matix held it out, remarking, “I think this is yours.” As he did, his foot brushed the dead fern.
Without warning it snapped its large leaf closed on the startled Agori’s foot! Having seen the plant do this same movement in its own weak defense earlier, watching the action repeated in this way just stunned Kazdrin. “Not like that.” was all he could get out of his mouth. He didn’t remember the thing having sharp thorns…
“Graahg! Get this thing off of me!” The shriek seemed to come at Kazdrin from a distance, but served to snap him back to reality. He ran over and quickly stomped the plant’s main stem to a pulp. The grip of the leaf went slack.
“Are… are you okay?”
“There’s a little blood from those thorns, but otherwise I don’t think it hurt me much. Why didn’t you tell me about that thing?”
“It didn’t do that last time.”
Picking up the now empty vial, Matix held it out to his stunned friend. “What happened when this broke?”
Kazdrin racked his brain for the memory. “Nothing, but I think… I guess it might have killed the plant. But What does that have to do with it?”
“For one it attacked me! And there are more dead creatures around here than-”
His sentence stopped dead when he realized there were no corpses where he had been about to point. But he was sure they had passed them just moments before.
“You feel like going back to the cave?” said the Agori uneasily.
Kazdrin was stuck between being relieved by the suggestion and cursing his lack of foresight again. “Uh, yeah. Good idea.”
The trek back the way they had come inevitably ended in circles, but it was still a silent one. Walking around felt better than staying in one place somehow. And there was still the absence of the pale carcasses of earlier that night.
The trees burst into motion as they bent and swayed. Kazdrin felt no wind.
A rustle in the leaves.
The thump of a foot. Now two. More. Now at a faster pace. Left or right; it was the same.
The two Agori didn’t have to communicate to start running at the same time. It was a product of pure mental reaction. Matix didn’t keep up with Kazdrin’s pace easily; his injured foot was hindering him badly. They’re haphazard run was bound to get one of them hurt. Kazdrin didn’t see the body on the forest floor; the floor where his face landed. Just another thing in the line of unfortunate events that has happened to me recently, thought the one normally an optimist. Scrambling up, he was about to forget it again and keep running in his fear. But curiosity would have its way.
“Matix! Look at this one for a second. It’s not dead- well, it is- but it’s not sickly. It’s… it’s been eaten.”
Stopping for the first time in minutes, Matix looked around him. More were littered on the ground. That was when he looked up, and realized they were in a clearing, as were the half eaten creatures.
A lone animal scampered across the clearing, whimpering as he went and not noticing either being. Kazdrin was almost too afraid to look at where it had run from, but he did. Matix was already staring in the same direction with his jaw slacked.
The dead ones. How were they standing up?
But they came on anyway. Their gait was no more than a staggering trot that was as sickly as their yellow flesh, but on they came. There were no snarls, no barks or noises. They just came.
“Get out of it Matix! Get moving!” Kazdrin said, surprised at his own quick reaction. He grabbed his friends arm and pulled him along back into the forest without thinking. But he did think to pull out his thornax launcher. “Thank the Great Beings!” he exclaimed out loud. Kazdrin had no time to use his tool, due to a singular tree branch that seemed to sway just enough in his direction to snag his only weapon.
It was all a blur now. The trees scraped his face and arms as he and Matix passed. His lungs burned. But he could hear the breath of their pursuers staying as calm and constant as their pace. It never slacked.
If Kazdrin had consciously realized that the blessed cave was right in his path by sheer luck, consciously thrown himself in with Matix, and started shoring up the entrance with all the stones, rocks, and pebbles available, it never registered with his brain. It was still a blur. When he thought clearly again, he regretted it. Matix was trying to block the top of the alcove entrance with sand and dirt. There were thumps… and a scream. First one, then many. The thumps grew faster and more violent. Even louder inside the enclosed cave were they. Kazdrin shut his eyes and ears as a last resort. It was all he could do. It was all you could do in a bad dream.
When the Agori opened his eyes again, it was still to the blackness of the cave. No sound was there to be heard, though; no screaming or thumping. Hesitantly, Kazdrin got up. His head brushed something cold and wet. A hand!
He jumped back instantly, hitting his cranium on the cave roof. He stood completely still, and as he did his eyes adjusted. What they saw was light coming in from a gap in top of the makeshift barrier. A motionless creature was halfway through the hole.
Nerving himself, Kazdrin went forward and touched the body. It didn’t respond. It was dead, and in the normal sense of the word.
“Matix! Are you awake yet?”
An annoyed reply came. “No need to shout. I’m right here. Is- is that thing… dead again?”
“Think so. I’m going to check outside.” Kazdrin was just glad to hear that his friend was alive.
After the dirty business of pushing the body out of the entrance, he scrambled through. There was a hideous smelling pile of still animals directly outside the barrier, marring the otherwise beautifully sunny day. The trees were themselves again. A long, deep breath was very welcome. “But why?”
The optimist unwittingly said this out loud. Matix was standing beside him, and after a few moments ventured an answer. “It must have made an antibody.”
“I’m sorry, you’ve lost me again.”
His companion thought a few moments more. “This forest I a large super-organism. If it’s a proper living creature, it’s got to have an immune system. I think your silver stuff-“
“-yeah, that stuff. Remember what it did to that plant? It must have something in it to make it poisonous to this place. So what I think is, that stuff spread and killed the whole organism. That must have been why the trees and animals here were all… changed.”
“That was some weird side effect.”
“Heh, yeah. And all these guys,” Matix gestured to the heaped bodies, “I guess they didn’t get whatever cure this place cooked up for itself.”
Realization dawned on Kazdrin. “They had to be connected to the trees! So that’s why we saw some normal ones last night. They were just “unhooked” when it happened.”
Matix smiled proudly at his own analysis. But Kazdrin was already walking off energetically.
“Hey, where are you going?”
He barely caught the broken pottery piece that the optimist tossed him.
“To find whoever made this of course. You coming?”