Bewildering Stories



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The Hike

JeffWM

Dillon should have stayed in his cage.

With dusk looming, Archie built a fire, and they sat amidst the swirling plumes of smoke, not speaking, avoiding each other's gaze. Archie held a fist over the crackling brambles, releasing a fine powder, like sawdust, claiming it would repel insects.

A splash in the nearby stream elicited nervous laughter from Trevor. "Won't they hear about us?" asked Dillon as he bandaged Trevor's decimated hand, something he wouldn't have considered doing before his extradition to this planet. The handful of personnel back at the facility were dead, courtesy of Archie, and Zaria was too remote for off-world authorities to arrive soon enough; but the mine required time to hike through the wilderness.

Archie lit a hand-rolled cigarette. A sour aroma from the fire masked whatever he was smoking. "It's fully automated," said Archie. "Just one guard. At all times the system is loading a freighter--autopiloted."

"Fly straight to Tydra," said Trevor, leering.

Tydra was a pioneer outpost, ideal for escaped murderers, ideal even for Archie whose victims included a shipload of Zarian diplomats.

Dillon neither trusted nor understood Archie, but a man who killed a lot of Zarians possessed at least one good quality.

"Why didn't you just leave us, Archie?" Dillon tried not to sound too interested.

"Humans aren't lab rats," Archie said, gazing into the fire. The cigarette had gone out; Archie prodded an ember with it. "Zarian's aren't better."

"Ouch." Trevor winced as Dillon tightened his field dressing. Trevor had plucked a bright berry, losing two of his fingers before he could put it in his mouth. Maybe now he would respect Archie's experience in this wilderness.

Archie proffered the cigarette to Trevor. "It'll make you smarter. You'll need smarter, too--it's a three-day hike to the mine."

Trevor accepted and sampled it. "What do they mine?" he asked.

"You're smoking it: tloxin."

"They mine it?"

"It's a fungus that grows in underground caverns."

Trevor burst into laughter and fell onto his side, expelling clouds of the stuff.

Dillon plucked it from between Trevor's fingers, lifted it to his nose. It smelled sweet and earthy, like fresh soil, and made his sinuses tingle. The smoke warmed his insides. The aftertaste was like cotton candy dissolving in his mouth.

He passed it to Archie, was about to ask whether it was addictive, when something occurred to him. He peered into the darkness toward the stream. Something in his mind, something he'd learned to trust, was speaking to him now. Whatever had splashed in that stream earlier was about torepeat itself. Trevor twisted around, watching. Archie didn't seem interested. The splash came, and when it did, Dillon understood the nature of its source. A bird had dove from a low branch for a fish, missed, emerged downstream and alighted on the branch again for another try. Dillon realized with equal acuity that the others had experienced the same revelation. Telepathy? No, more like an enhancement of intuition, a rising note played on the musical instrument of his mind.

A mixture of fear and astonishment replaced the calm that had been creeping into his being since first drawing from the cigarette. Curious, he turned his attention to the other sounds of the forest. The buzzing of insects, the chirps and belches of alien beasts, the rattling of seed pods tumbling through the canopy of unearthly foliage--all suggested their purpose, promising a comprehension of an entire ecological system that exceeded any science. Now he understood that what Archie had released into the fire produced, when burned, odors similar to those of Zarian volcanoes on the verge of eruption. The fumes deterred not only bugs but also the animals of the many species that had developed an aversion to the fumes. Now he understood that the corrosive blood of the berry Trevor had handled protected the plant from a particularly tough beetle-like insect, its molecular machinations working to disassemble organic molecules with an efficiency that matched modern nanotechnology.

It was blowing his mind.

Heart pounding, he looked up at Archie. "Habit forming?" Trevor snickered at that and Dillon tapped Trevor's shoe, provoking a dangerous glare.

"No," said Archie, placing it between his lips. The end flared. "They pumped dungloads of this stuff into my system over the past year. Too much. That's how I learned how to escape. I've never needed it."

"Crap," said Trevor, "you must be some kind of genius by now."

Archie laughed. "No, my friend. I'm an imbecile. But this," he said, eyes glittering in the firelight, "this is the Savior."

"In that case," said Trevor, smiling, "you better give me some more."

No joke, thought Dillon.

#

Warm and brief, the Zarian night passed without incident. Dillon awoke with a terrible hunger. Realizing most of the fish in the stream were edible, Dillon sharpened a stick and speared half a dozen, and while the others slept, he gutted and scaled each of the fish with an instrument resembling an oversized scalpel, one of the few things they'd scavenged from the facility. They drank directly from the stream, as clean as any Earth stream, Dillon realized.

Archie assured them that the valley wall lay another kilometer beyond the woods, and that the mine lay beyond it. He filled a container he'd taken from the facility with stream water, capped it, and stuffed it into the makeshift pack he'd tied together from a pair of coveralls. The container couldn't have held more than half a gallon. With Archie leading the way, they set out for the valley wall. Dillon's newfound sense hadn't worn off. He remained close to Archie just the same, though. Trevor lagged behind a little, complaining of the heat. He was drinking more than his share of water, too, by Dillon's estimation, but Dillon figured Archie wouldn't have any trouble locating more, so he said nothing.

As they hiked, Dillon managed to get Archie to reveal some of his past. "I've always hated Zarians," said Archie. "They're only good for hurting humans. Ever hear of the Nazis? They're like that, only worse because they managed to talk humans into tolerating their atrocities."

"They showed us how to travel deep space fast." Dillon wasn't defending Zarians; he hated them, too. Hated them for using him as a human science experiment, for bullying the human race into negotiating with them. "It's just that we've benefited, too."

"They could have done worse, I guess," Archie said. He lit a cigarette.

#

Trevor drank the last of the water. Fortunately, the temperature and humidity had been kind, if the terrain had not. Archie had been right about the tloxin. It was proving itself to be indispensable in this environment, especially for Trevor who refused to take their predicament seriously. Dillon was enjoying his expanding awareness, too. Who was it that said, "I become all things by learning about them," or something like that?

Still, some dangers surprised Dillon. They hadn't the luxury of a machete, so they used hefty sticks to bash a path through the underbrush. When they emerged on the bank of a lagoon, Trevor bellowed as if his team had just one the big game. He was still hollering as he approached the edge of the water. Dillon didn't stop him. He'd realize soon enough.

Trevor reached the edge, crouched, and then froze, a hand poised over the brackish surface of the water. "Oh," he said. "Crap."

A ring of tree growth enclosed the ten-meter-diameter lagoon, lining its edge with exposed roots that plunged like reaching fingers into its depths. Twigs and leaves choked the whole thing, leaving only small patches of the murk visible. The exposed areas reflected the sunlight that strained through the canopy above. Scattered along the edge, half submerged in the water and covered with decayed leaves, were carcasses. The husks of bone and hide gleamed in the weak light, like the work of a lazy taxidermist who had taken to simply laminating road kill. Interspersed among the carcasses was the occasional stub of foot or tongue, prizes the lagoon had claimed from animals that valued their lives more than their limbs. Dillon detected no odor at all.

Directly before Trevor, a long claw curved out of the still water. Trevor crouched again, tried to dislodge it. As he pulled, the surface of the water stretched with it and extended several inches before Trevor lost his grip. The claw snapped back soundlessly, and didn't disturb the lagoon at all. However, when he let go, he also lost his balance. He saved himself by clutching a nearby limb, but his legs slid out from under him and one foot slipped between the roots and into the lagoon.

"DillonDillonDillon," he cried, dangling by both hands from the limb, which was no thicker than his thumb. Placing one hand over the other, he began to haul himself out. His foot appeared from its crevice between the roots, and with it came the goo, which stretched as before. The cord was thin as yarn. The attached end enveloped his foot up to the ankle.

Kneeling next to Trevor's leg, Dillon used the big scalpel to saw into the binding. Trevor had gone pale, was breathing hard. He began yanking his leg in a vain effort to free himself.

"Cool it," Dillon said.

Growling, Trevor pulled, stretching the goo filament to a thread. "I said knock it off," Dillon yelled. Behind them, Archie chuckled.

Finally freed, Trevor staggered away from the lagoon and collapsed, clawing at his shoe.

Dillon gazed out over the lagoon, at the carcasses. He sensed it was a single organism, its internal organs resting at the bottom, living in a symbiotic relationship with the lagoon. It wasn't a bad thing. It was just another animal, trying to survive by the only means it had.

They emerged from the forest into an opening. A hundred meters ahead, the valley wall loomed. Crowded with trees and dense brush, it rose into the sky at an angle so steep that it seemed to scrape the passing clouds. Halfway up, a flock of white birds flashed out of the foliage and scattered, rising in a northeastward direction.

Trevor collapsed in a mock exhibition of defeat, lay in the grass with arms and legs splayed. Archie lit another cigarette. Dillon sat next to Archie, hoping to catch some of the smoke.

Following a brief repose, they tackled the slope, pulling themselves up by branches, leaning with their backs against trees while they cast about for new points of purchase. Trevor, who had managed to don his slimed shoe, seemed to enjoy the exercise. "Forty degrees," he shouted from above.

"Fifty," said Archie. Dillon could smell the sweetness of tloxin wafting over him from behind. Planting his foot on a protruding stone, he grabbed the slender trunk of a tree, hauled himself up another two feet. He fell as the stone dislodged and his leg flailed out from under him, clasped hands sliding down the tree trunk. He heard the stone knocking against tree trunks behind him, and he heard Archie's voice: "Watch it up there." Above, Dillon could here Trevor laughing.

After another ten minutes of climbing, Dillon could here Trevor yelling. He paused, back resting against a tree trunk the thickness of his thigh, and peered up through the woods. He could see Trevor about twenty meters above, and beyond Trevor, something that glittered like mica. No information about the phenomenon entered his mind.

"Hey, what's up there?" he shouted. "Trevor, stop."

Trevor howled triumphantly, and was still climbing, and soon Dillon couldn't see him.

"Archie, what's up there?"

A few meters below, Archie had halted and was clinging to a branch of a petit tree, dangling beneath it. Archie didn't answer him. He strained to glimpse Trevor above but still could not.

He heard a familiar sound, the tumble of a stone down a slope, coming from above, then the sound of glass shattering. He imagined a bottle rolling down, smashing into a tree. Soon he heard another bottle roll and smash, then several at once. He had just enough time to swing around the tree on which he was leaning before the avalanche.

Trevor was yelling again, but this time a symphony of crashing glass overwhelmed his voice, as if hundreds of bottles were tumbling down the slope, shattering against the trees. He peeked around his tree. The forest floor was alive. It was a writhing blanket of obsidian, softball-size nuggets that poured down the slope, flowing around trees and over stones and stumps. The sunlight straining through the canopy shattered on the glassy material and stippled the foliage with the sparkle of a million wandering diamonds.

The wave front flowed past him, obliterating the underbrush. It sounded like a million xylophones in a hailstorm. As the nuggets flowed and leaped, he heard them smashing into his tree, felt their shards stinging his face and arms.

When it was over, the woods were silent. It took another twenty minutes to reach the rim of the valley.

Walking on level ground, Archie led the way, Trevor lagging behind. Momentarily he caught up. "Say, Archie, I--"

"Forget it," Archie said. "Just watch what you're doing."

There wasn't any point in sneaking up on the mine. It's location protected it from anyone wary of Zarian territory, which was everyone. Hence the Zarians didn't bother fortifying it with any security. Archie said that the guard they had posted was there mostly to monitor the automated systems. They would just stroll in, board the freighter, and wait for the autopilot to courier them to into international shipping lanes, at which point they would assume manual control.

Archie suggested it might be better if one of them entered the complex alone first to assess the situation. Dillon and Trevor agreed and Archie trotted ahead of them without further discussion.

After two hours of waiting, Trevor spoke up. "What are you going to do on Tydra?"

Dillon sat up, propped himself on his elbows in the grass. "Get lost. What else?"

"No. I mean about the ship. The tloxin."

"Oh. You guys keep it." He lay back, clasping his fingers behind his head. "I just want to change my name, my identity. Start over. Eke out a living on Tydra."

"Not me, man." Trevor stood, hurled a stone over the dry riverbed Archie had crossed earlier. "Sell that ship. Maybe the rest, too. Start a business. The ship alone would fetch plenty. Me and Archie, we'll split even. Where the hell is Archie, anyway?"

Dillon got to his feet, brushing off leaves. He peered across the riverbed, into the woods. In the distance he could see a black thread of smoke, twisting straight up into a clear sky. Archie had headed for it, and it couldn't have been more than a twenty-minute hike.

"Hell with this," Trevor said. He got up and lurched into a trot toward the riverbed.

Dillon considered following, but what if Archie had been wrong about the mine being deserted? What if Archie had been captured? He waited ten minutes, and set out after Trevor.

The mine was deserted, just as Archie had said. Of his companions he saw no sign. He also saw no guards. The place looked nothing like the facility. The gate lay open to a pewter-gray dome. Three meters high and five meters across, it probably served as a guard's station. Its round door stood ajar, propped open by Archie's pack.

Inside the dome, Archie's trail ended. The single room contained only a bare desk and a cabinet. The cabinet door stood open, showing a pair of Zarion ion rifles hanging from the wall. Two of the rifle clasps held nothing.

Leaving unarmed, Dillon strode in no particular hurry toward the high wall that lay just beyond the dome. No gate blocked the opening.

Now within the mine proper, Dillon located Trevor. Trevor lay face down on the ground, not breathing. A dark stain had spread between the shoulder blades of his coveralls. The stain wasn't blood. His body had absorbed most of the energy from the rifle, but enough had passed through to scorch the fabric.

Dillon heard a sound like the purr of a zipper. He turned to his right to see Archie aiming a rifle into the woods. Archie was swinging the barrel in a slow arch, keeping his gaze steady along the sights. Dillon moved towards him.

Now motionless, still aiming into the woods, Archie looked up from the rifle for a moment and noticed Dillon.

Dillon walked around to approach Archie from behind. Looking over Archie's shoulder, Dillon peered at the tree line, some fifty meters distant, but saw nothing.

Archie fired again.

Then he saw it. It emerged from behind what resembled a huge spruce, moving fast, and quickly vanished behind another. He had only glimpsed it, but there was no mistaking the Zarian. The too long arms and legs, the neck that stretched half a meter to support a disproportionately small head, and the milky skin, presented a sharp contrast with the green of the foliage.

The Zarian had been holding one blackened arm pinned close to its body by the other.

"Archie," he said, almost in a whisper. "Forget it. We'll be in Tydra in an hour."

Archie kept aiming. "Monsters. All of them. Kill all of them."

"They're not evil. It's just...what they do. Their nature."

The rifle discharged. A slender tree toppled into the underbrush.

"Archie--"

"There is a ship. Take it. Leave me alone."

Dillon placed a hand onto his shoulder. "Archie--"

The butt of the rifle slammed into Dillon's face. The impact didn't knock him down, but he staggered backwards. Then dizziness overcame him and he collapsed.

When it subsided moments later, he lifted his head from the ground. Blood dripped on the back of his hand. He looked up to see Archie trotting into the woods.

Standing, he dusted himself off, wiped blood from his cheek. Despite the ache, Archie hadn't broken any bones, by the feel of his face. He turned and began looking for the ship. Tydra awaited.

Copyright 2002 by jeffwm2000@yahoo.com & Bewildering Stories.