This is an Uber story with characters based on those depicted within the TV Series Xena: Warrior Princess, no copyright infringement is intended to Renaissance or Universal MCA. However this story and its characters are mine.
Yep, its here but it isnt graphic.
Just a little bit but not an awful lot.
This is the revised version of the Story. I felt it needed a few extra scenes. I hope you enjoy it. All comments are welcome to Surtees1@aol.com
As per usual this story would not be possible without the constant support, editing and proof reading by Pruferblue. Thank you, my Friend.
by Karen A. Surtees
Copyright 2000 Karen A. Surtees
The night sky roared. A lone figure raised its head and watched as another ship left the planet's atmosphere. They'd been leaving regularly for the past few hours, sometimes in groups of three or more, sometimes alone, like now. Another roar echoed behind her and she turned and watched again, as the ship grew smaller, until it became another speck of light drifting into the void.
She waited while several minutes passed, but no more ships launched. The nighttime spectacular had ended and an unfamiliar quiet settled over the city. She rose and gracefully jumped from the small building she had been huddled on. Her feet hit the ground, several feet below, without a sound and she crept silently through the alley, its deep shadows hiding her movements.
She stopped as she came to the main crosswalk. Yesterday, when she passed this way, there were still people populating the streets. Admittedly, most of them were military, but a few civilians were about--even one or two children. She hadn't seen many young ones in a long time. Most of them were the first to die, along with the old and infirm.
The military was mobilised quickly, once the scientists realised what they had released, but nobody was prepared for the rapid spread of the plague or its devastating effects. People became ill within a day, quickly filling and overflowing the hospitals. Then the morgues started to fill.
Panic spread through the populace almost as quickly as the disease. A week passed, and the scientists knew that a cure couldn't be found or developed for what they had inadvertently created.
The government gave the military free rein; martial law was imposed on a global scale. Travel, except to the quarantine camps, was outlawed and still the disease spread, impudently ignoring the boundaries of sea and mountain.
When the death toll reached the millions, it was decided that those who had been cleared of any trace of the illness would be evacuated, leaving the planet altogether and heading for the stars. Every space-worthy ship was commandeered. Small shuttles ferried those who were unaffected by the plague to the massive ore carriers that once served their bountiful economy and now orbited above, laden with living cargo.
The tall figure stepped away from the cover of the alley and walked down the middle of the street, unafraid of being discovered for the first time since the outbreak. Her startling blue eyes darkened as they scoured the buildings and streets.
Most of those infected with the disease had crawled into their houses to be with their loved ones. Some, refusing to lie down in their beds and die, fell in plain sight on the streets. Many of the last to contract the plague didn't give it a chance to kill them and took their own lives and, in some cases, those of their families. Still more were shot by the military for breaking curfew, or looting, when they had realised nothing was being done to help them.
No matter whether you could see them, or not, bodies littered the entire city and the scene was repeated in thousands of other cities, towns and villages across the planet.
She smiled as a dog bark echoed in the distance, soon followed by more as all the animals, abandoned by their masters, picked up the howling crescendo. The humans had dropped like flies, but nature had carried on.
A high-pitched whine caught her ear and she stopped, looking around her for the source. It built in intensity until it hurt. She looked up and saw a blinding flash lash down from the skies. The explosion rocked the city and she stood, mesmerised, as red-hot debris showered around her. Another high-pitched whine and the fires of hell sprung from the skies again and again. With a last look up, she turned and began to run slowly; gradually picking up speed until she was a blur of motion.
The viewscreen died as the final volley was released onto the burning planet. Silence ensued on every bridge in the ragtag fleet of ships. Until, on one, the question was asked.
"Did we get them all?"
"Yes, sir, there isn't a structure still standing," replied the young flight officer as his captain stepped forward.
"Was there anybody still alive when we left?"
"No, sir. The ground forces assure me that all were euthanised before the final pullout; nothing could have survived the bombardment, sir."
"Then it's time to leave. Tell the fleet to set course to the Phelean mining colonies. I'll be with the council in the wardroom. We have a few matters to discuss with our scientists."
A solitary figure stood, silently watching the land burn--the lone witness to the fiery devastation. Turning her head to the sky, she watched as hundreds of stars suddenly moved, streaked across the night and disappeared.
The pale golden hue of the morning sun crept slowly into the compound, its gentle caress leaving the sleepers to their dreams, except for one small blonde. Slowly closing the door to the living habitat, she stepped onto the dark, loamy earth. Her booted feet hardly made a sound, the ground tightly packed after months of the same treatment. Probing green eyes made a swift inspection to ensure that none of their equipment had gone missing overnight. Noting with satisfaction that, for once, it was all there, she lightly wrapped her jacket around her, walked out of the small compound and entered the vast rainforest.
Dr. Rachel Bradley had been part of the Interstellar Medical Research Agency for the last eight years. Because it offered her the opportunity to travel beyond the planet-bound chains that had held her family for decades, she had joined it immediately after graduating from medical school.
The young doctor had been ecstatic when her first assignment had taken her out to the fringes of the galaxy, and that was where she had stayed. Never again had she set foot upon her own planet. Instead, she was one of the first ever to step onto the soils of alien worlds which the Confederation probes suggested held flora and fauna that might possess medicinal properties.
At first, it had disturbed her that they worked in such close quarters with the military, but when marauders had attacked the small shuttlecraft in which she and her team were returning from one of Sigma Prime's moons, she discovered why. She had never been so glad as to see the four fighter craft swoop from the glare of the sun and attack the marauder ships. It troubled her though that the fiery spectacular that she witnessed had been at the expense of human lives, even if they had been criminals.
But they had little to do with their military protectors since they'd landed here, at what the Confederation scientists labelled Beta 001. Rachel affectionately termed it "Amazonia" because of the steamy rainforest they were camped just beyond that stirred her imagination of ages past.
The initial scans of Beta 001 had returned to the Confederation showing an oxygen/nitrogen class planet that so closely mimicked what Earth looked like several millennia ago as to astound those who studied it. So the research vessel, Agrippa, and her escorts were dispatched to investigate the planet and its surrounding moons. They'd been here six months; and, after two months without threat, the military ships had taken to running exercises in the solar system.
The planet was an idyllic paradise. The northern continents were temperate in climate; the equatorial regions were vast and tropical rainforest covered forty percent of the planet's surface. The more southern continents tended to savannah grasslands. The wildlife of the planet was also startlingly familiar; big feline predators roamed the grasslands and forests and the seas held whale-like creatures and fish. But the researchers hadn't been bothered by anything larger than insects. Their mission had gone well, as they had discovered varieties of plants that had long been extinct in the Confederation but were known to have many medicinal properties. Many long nights had been spent debating over whether this was a seeded planet that some ancient space-faring civilisation had created, possibly after visiting earth in some distant time.
During their long stay on the planet, many of the scientists had taken vacations hiking and sailing, in some cases even skiing. But Rachel had fallen in love with the rainforest areas and spent much of her free time walking in its fringes, getting to know its moods and also its plants and wildlife. Amongst the research group she was considered the expert on the local area.
Today was different from most of the others. Today they would penetrate into the heart of one of the rainforests. It could have been a simple matter of flying one of the shuttles deep into its confines but that wouldn't have been adventurous enough for the group. Whenever they could, they shirked the modern conveniences available to them and went native. Modern conveniences held no challenge.
There was also the real threat that the shuttle could irreparably harm the ecosystems within the forest. So today a small group of ten would pack all their equipment into their sacks and go on a twenty-day safari. The trip had been planned because Hal, one of the team's biologists, found samples of a flower that had the same type of properties as several species of orchid that had all but died out on earth. This particular orchid had been found to have curative effects on several virus strains that plagued mankind for centuries, and would be the making of the expedition if it had been rediscovered here. As far as Rachel was concerned, it was a good excuse to go exploring.
Rachel's feet trod the well-worn game trail that she had discovered within days of the camp being set up. A week of surveillance had shown her that the trail was only used at night by anything that may have been considered a threat. Shortly afterward, she had taken to exploring it in her early morning walks.
The heat in this region of the planet, even in the early morning, was stifling; but at least at this time the humidity hadn't yet reached its peak. The cool caress of the shadows that the trees threw down onto the ground was welcoming to the young doctor and this was her favourite part of the day. A few of the others felt a certain uneasiness in being so close to the massive sentinels but Rachel looked at their presence as comforting.
The length of the year on this planet was only two months above the earth standard. Many of the trees were centuries old and, rather than feel intimidated by their age, it gave Rachel security that something could live to that age, here. In fact, the young doctor had felt an immediate affinity to the planet and, for the first time in many years, she felt at home with her feet firmly on a planet's surface.
As she wandered slowly down her well-worn path, occasionally swatting at an inquisitive insect or pushing the reaching leaves out of her way, she let her eyes travel across the many plant species, looking for any newcomers since her walk yesterday. The light in her eyes faltered slightly as she felt an odd, yet familiar, presence near her. She'd first noticed it the second week of her wanderings and thought that one of the marines from the base had followed her, but when she had asked they had all denied it.
When she felt the presence again the next day, she was certain that someone was pulling her chain and trying to frighten her. The following day she took a tracker with her and, although she knew someone was near and watching her, nothing appeared on the monitor. She informed Gary Hall, her base leader, and a sweep of the area was made but, again, nothing was found.
Then, as quickly as it had come, the feeling vanished and, perversely, Rachel missed the presence. She would have to admit, if anybody asked her, that she felt no menace from it, just curiosity. The watcher returned, however, at least once a week and Rachel took to talking with it, even though her conversation was met with silence.
"It was a beautiful dawn again this morning, wasn't it?" she addressed the surrounding silence. "The orange, red mix made a nice still frame." She slowly kept walking along the trail, all the while trying to catch a glimpse of her watcher. Since no humanoid life sign had shown on the trackers, Rachel rather thought it could be some form of intelligent wildlife, but only a few of the primates and sea life had shown any type of rational thought process.
"Today is very special for us. A small group will be travelling into the rainforest, searching for more of those plants I told you about last time I spoke to you." A rustling in the undergrowth to her right caught her attention. Rachel stopped and waited but the rustling died away, leaving only the patter of falling water as it dripped from the leaves and trees. She let out the breath she had been holding. "You know, I'd really like to get a look at who I'm talking to one of these days. I'd think, after all this time, you'd realise we weren't here to cause you any harm." The doctor sighed, again getting no response, then briskly started her walk again, not seeing the intense eyes gazing at her from the foliage.
The base camp was in full flow when Rachel got back from her morning jaunt. Greetings echoed around her from various people. The doctor replied to them enthusiastically as she edged past them to get to her destination, which, at that moment, was the mess hall. Breakfast would just be coming to an end but the cooks had become used to her late arrivals and knew from past experience of her vast appetite. Today was no exception.
"Morning, Doc." Julie, the young blonde cook on duty today, greeted her as she strolled into the dining room.
"Hi, Julie, what do we have for our fabulous repast this morning?" she asked as she seated herself near the counter.
The cook grinned at her. "Gary insisted that we have porridge today which I know you absolutely hate with a passion, so I made up a fruit platter for you and I left your cereal on the side so you can help yourself to that. Coffee is in the jug where it always is and I left your chilled water in the fridge. The guys and I are still packing rations for your trip, so will you lock up as you leave?" Julie walked up to where Rachel sat and placed the fruit platter before her.
Rachel smiled at the woman who was a year or two younger than she was. "Sure, I can do that for you. Thanks, Julie," she replied to the cook's retreating form.
"No problem." The closing of the kitchen door muffled Julie's voice.
Rachel sat back in her chair, her left hand reaching for a piece of fruit, while her right typed into the data pads which were imbedded into the table. The holographic display materialised over the table and Rachel looked through the database for the expedition's latest updates. Sometimes there was nothing of interest for the doctor to browse through and other times what looked like insignificant pieces of information were actually key pieces to the puzzles they were trying to unravel. Today, though, it was mostly gripes from several of the scattered groups about equipment losses and failures, and a small note from the escort ships that the weekly communication with the Confederation was late. But out here in the fringes, that wasn't an unusual occurrence.
She pushed herself away from the table, picked up her empty plate then walked to the counter. Putting the plate to one side, she grabbed the cereal packet and a bowl, wandered back to the table and set them down. Then she grabbed two mugs and reached over to the coffee jug and poured two mugs of thick black fragrant liquid. The door to the mess hall opened but she didn't bother to look up from the report she was reading; she knew who it was.
Clyde Hackman had been her breakfast partner since she had joined the Agripa's expedition group. Whereas Rachel got up early to go walking, Clyde habitually slept in, managing to crawl from his bed just as Rachel was finishing her breakfast. The two friends had lost count over how many expedition leaders had tried to break him of the habit. Clyde was just too good in his field to get rid of and, because everybody acknowledged that fact, there was very little anybody could hold over him to force him to get into line with expedition policy.
Clyde slipped into the chair opposite Rachel and picked up his coffee, taking a hearty mouthful before he spoke. "Good walk this morning, Doc?"
"Hmmm," said Rachel, still not looking up. "You put in the report on the missed communication with the Confederation?"
"Anything in it?"
"No, I'm pretty sure that Sykes was just in the wrong place. They've been playing war games this week and I think that Rodgers caught him with his pants down again."
Rachel stopped reading the reports and laughed, looking up to see if Clyde was joking. "You mean Sue Rodgers whipped his ass again and he was off sulking?"
"Yeah, something like that. The man has yet to learn not to challenge Sue, especially when it comes to hit and run tactics. I mean, the woman didn't make it through the colonial conflicts by not knowing what she was doing, now did she?"
"No, but if you asked Sykes that, he'd quote the fact that she was a junior officer at the time and had no input in the battle at all, despite the fact she got a star of valour for her efforts."
"Yeah. Well anyway, I don't think he managed to get to the communication buoy in time to pick up the transmission. Nothing serious, I'm sure." He put down his finished mug of coffee. "You all packed for your little jaunt?"
"Just about. Hal is still bugging me about carrying some of his diagnostics. About the only thing he doesnt want to take is the lab building and that's only because no one has suggested it. I don't think he realises he's actually got to carry it every day."
She picked up her lukewarm coffee and drank while she studied her friend. Clyde towered over her. She stood at about 5'5", and Clyde was at least 6'4". He was a large, muscular man and Rachel often found herself wondering how he became a communications expert. Anybody looking at him would have assumed him to be a military tech at the very least. His light-brown hair was thinning on top but since there were few who were actually tall enough to see that, he got very little teasing about it. Most people went to their doctors and got implants to cover baldness but Clyde was rather proud of his progressive lack of hair.
"Typical of Hal. You gonna do it?" His face broke into a grin.
Rachel smiled back at her friend. "Yeah, most probably. Come on, I've got to do sick parade before we can finally move out." The two friends picked up their mugs and Rachel's empty cereal bowl and put them on the counter then walked back out into the smothering heat.
Five days later .
"Don't blame me." Rachel's voice held a tinge of amusement even though she was trying hard not to show it.
"Ouch. Do you have to do that so damn hard?"
"Hal, I told you that we had to carry everything ourselves. It's not my fault you chose to ignore me." Rachel prodded again at the small man's back and shoulders that had been rubbed red raw by his pack. Normally the weight of the packs wouldn't have made much difference, as the antigrav units built into them would have held most of it. They had discovered, however, that even the grav units would finally give in to the humidity. Hal was lucky that his was one of the last to go. Several of the others had been carrying packs without grav units for three days or more, Rachel being one of them. "Besides, you won't have to carry it for much longer. The sergeant said we only have about ten klicks more to go."
"Ten!" Hal's shocked voice rose above the general conversation, causing most of the group to chuckle at his predicament. "I'll never be able to carry it that far."
"Well then, I suggest you sort out what you need to take and leave the rest here." Rachel was glad that Hal couldn't see her face and the amusement that was now openly showing on it.
"What? I can't do that. I need all of the equipment. You gotta be kidding me." He swung around, catching Rachel's amusement before she could remove it from her face. "You are kidding me, right?" Rachel cracked up, tears of laughter running down her face. "Ah hell, Rach, that wasn't funny."
"I'm sorry, Hal, but you are just too easy a target. The Sergeant is getting two of his guys to carry it for you. I can't seal your back properly until we get the tents pitched. I don't want the med equipment to get damp, so you wouldn't be able to carry it anyway. I've finished you can get your shirt back on. We should be able to cover the rest of the distance this afternoon. I'll fix you up tonight, okay?"
"Yeah thanks, Rach, sorry to be such a bother." He shucked his shirt over his shoulders and eased it against his back.
"You ready?" inquired the doctor as she stood and picked up her pack.
Hal shoved himself to his feet and grinned. "Aren't I always?"
"No." Rachel gave him a playful slap. "That's the problem, hon, you never are." She winked at the biologist who stood and stared open-mouthed.
"Can we get this show back on the road?" A harsh, gravely voice reached for the friends' attention from across the clearing in which they had stopped.
Hal looked up and over Rachel's shoulder. "Sure, Bill, we can get going. Who's taking my pack?"
Sergeant Bill Michaels adjusted his firearm to a more comfortable position in its shoulder harness and flicked a hand at two of his squad. The two soldiers dusted themselves off as they stood then walked over and grabbed the biologist's pack between them.
"Okay!" yelled the sergeant. "Time to move out. I figure a couple more hours and we'll be at the campsite so let's try and keep the pace up. I'd rather not have to spend another night on the trail."
The survey team hiked for an hour or so longer before Rachel felt the tickle at the back of her subconscious that alerted her to the presence of her silent stalker. She hadn't sensed the watcher in the days that they had been on the trail, most probably due to the presence of the others in the team; and, not knowing the terrain they were travelling except from the scans, Rachel hadn't been for her daily solitary walks.
The young doctor's pace gradually began to slow, as she became aware of a feeling other than curiosity from her watcher. It was the distinct taste of anxiety and unease. Her pace had slowed so much that Hal, who was walking behind her talking to one of the geneticists, walked straight into her.
"Whoa, watch out, Doc!" he yelled, his large hands shooting out to grab hold of Rachel's shoulders preventing her from falling. "You okay?" he asked, his hands steadying her, as he noticed the frown on her face.
"Yeah. Sorry about that; my mind wandered a bit." She gave him a fleeting smile and started walking again, but the feeling of unease refused to leave her.
After nearly knocking her from her feet for the third time, Hal had had enough. It was obvious to him that Rachel had something on her mind other than walking, and he resolved to find out what it was before both of them ended up as an embarrassing heap on the ground. Excusing himself from the young scientist he was talking to, he manoeuvred himself up to Rachel's side, climbing over the large buttresses of the trees that reached high into the distant sky on either side of them.
"So," he said as he came alongside his friend, "you going to tell an old worrywart what the problem is or do I have to beat it out of you?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry. I'm just not with it today." Rachel's eyes were distant as though her body was present but the mind that controlled it was far away.
"Well, I wouldn't have noticed that unless you'd pointed it out to me, you know? Now tell Uncle Hal what's bugging you." Seeing her mind still wasn't on where she was walking, Hal placed his hand on her elbow and guided her around a tangle of vine that crossed the trail path.
"Can't you feel it?" Rachel replied, gently removing her arm from Hal's grip
"Feel what?" But as soon as he said it Hal knew what Rachel was talking about. An icy chill of foreboding crept up his spine but, like Rachel, he couldn't seem to pinpoint where it was coming from. "Forget I said that, yeah I can feel it." His voice had deepened, taking on a more serious tone. He quickly looked about trying to see Sergeant Michaels. "Bill!" he yelled when he spotted the Sergeant.
The Sergeant looked around and saw Hal and the doc standing off to one side. He quickly spoke into his radio. The group slowly came to a standstill and he walked over to the couple.
"What's the problem?"
"I'm not sure, Bill, but something is not quite right. Rachel noticed it first but I have to agree I can feel it, too. It's almost as if something were watching us."
Something is, thought Rachel. But that's not what the problem is. Then it hit her. Now that they had stopped and the noise of trampling feet--and conversation that had to be raised to be heard over it--had quieted down, she realised the forest was silent. "Listen!" she snapped, getting the attention of the two men.
"What?" said the Sergeant after a few minutes. "I can't hear anything."
"That's my point, exactly. We're standing in the middle of a rainforest and I can't even hear the water dripping from the trees, never mind the insects and animals that should be yelling right now."
Now that Rachel had pointed it out to them, they realised how quiet it actually was, making all of them a little nervous. Sergeant Michaels got onto his radio and gave instructions into the mike. Then, turning to Rachel and Hal, he said, "I'm bringing everybody in. I don't want anybody too far ahead or behind us, if we do have a problem. You think we ought to stop or go on?" He looked pointedly at Rachel.
"Personally, I think we should keep moving. Whatever it is, it's been with us for at least the last twenty minutes. We might get into more trouble trying to backtrack."
"You think it's an animal or something, then?" Again the question was directed at Rachel. Since everybody knew she walked the forest on a regular basis, Bill felt her opinion was worth asking.
"How the hell should I know? Hal's the biologist. Ask him." Rachel and the Sergeant turned toward Hal.
"Hey, I do plants not animals."
"Great. So neither of you can shed any light on this. What about the rest of the group?"
"Lisa Delgado." Both Hal and Rachel replied at the same time, thinking of the dark-haired woman who was in the group.
"She's the zoologist in the team," expounded Rachel.
"Yeah, and she's the one who's been cataloguing the animals on this trip," said Hal. "But she hasn't reported any animals that might be considered a threat except for the odd spider or snake and a couple of frogs. Most of the indigenous wildlife moves out of the way when they hear us coming. We are larger than most of the prey species that are found here and so they consider us a threat and move off."
The rest of the team had gathered together, waiting to find out what was going on. Most of them had sat down resting tired legs; some leant against the trees. A few of them had noticed the eerie silence of the forest.
Rachel spotted the zoologist peeling her backpack off and resting it by a tree. Then she pulled a small device from one of the outer compartments and flicked a switch on, staring intently at the display screen that activated. Rachel nudged the sergeant and walked over to the dark-haired woman. "Lisa?"
"Yeah, I know. I can sense it, too. The thing is these scans are pretty inconclusive in this environment. There's too much life about for them to be able to distinguish between species but, saying that, I can't see anything around here big enough to bother us. Then again, it doesn't have to be big to pose a threat. But I'm not seeing anything here that I haven't seen before." The woman's voice was low and deep and she rendered her interpretation with authority.
"So it's not that the animals, etc., aren't there, just that they're quiet?" asked Hal.
"All I can say with certainty is that there is animal life around us, nothing bigger that the average housecat back home." Lisa bent down and repacked her portable tracker.
"So where does that leave us?" The sergeant's tone of voice suggested he was starting to believe there was no threat to the group and that the stop was a total waste of time.
"I guess we keep moving. If there is anything out there, we'll be a harder target if we're in motion. Especially if it is an animal of some sort whose territory we may have infringed on."
Hal looked at Rachel to see whether she agreed with Lisa's suggestion.
"Fine by me, but I think we should keep a sharper watch than we have been doing."
"Okay then." The sergeant took his cap off and ran his hand through his thinning hair. "We'll keep moving and I'll have my guys and girls with weapons unslung. All you boffins can stay within our perimeter. That way, should anything decide to jump out and scare us, one of my people should be in front. Sound good to you?" Rachel and Hal nodded their agreement.
Sergeant Michaels quickly organised his eight-man squad and explained the situation whilst Hal saw to the scientists. Soon they were on their way again, the heightened tension keeping the conversation to a minimum.
Rachel walked by Hal's side; desperately wishing she could get a little solitude. Her watcher had never spoken to her before but she had the feeling it was trying to tell her something now. If she could get a moment alone maybe she'd be able to find out what it was. However, there was no way that Sergeant Michaels was going to let her go wandering off by herself. The silence was even more deafening now that most of the conversation had stopped. A flaring of alarm caused her to speak. "Oh, god."
"What?" Hal asked, concerned, looking around to see what might have alarmed Rachel.
The urge to run was building in Rachel and she realised it wasn't her, but her watcher; trying to convey the urgency of the situation they were obviously getting themselves into. She clutched hold of Hal's arm with one hand and started to push him into a faster pace. "I don't know, but move. Fast."
Lisa Delgado and the geneticist that Hal had been talking to earlier were bringing up the rear behind Rachel and Hal, apart from the rearguard Bill Michaels had stationed there. When they saw Hal and Rachel break into a jog they followed suit, frantically brushing foliage away that whipped back into their faces from the passing of the two in front of them.
Realising that they were being pushed from behind, those in front of Rachel and Hal were soon running too, all organisation fragmenting despite Michaels' yelled orders to stick together.
Rachel pushed Hal and herself faster and faster. There was a rolling wave of terror building in magnitude behind them and she had no wish to find out what was causing it. Despite that, she threw a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure the others were following. Lisa Delgado had grabbed hold of her walking partner in much the same way Rachel had grabbed Hal and was all but dragging the girl along with her. The soldier acting as rearguard was a few paces behind, till he was yanked from sight. Rachel skidded to a halt, releasing her hold on Hal, thinking the young boy had fallen or tripped, until a blood-curdling scream reached her ears.
Lisa pushed her partner past the doctor and whirled to find out what had caused the young soldier to scream in such a horrific manner. Blanching, she saw thick white tendrils erupting from the ground and capturing the soldier in their tight clutches, literally choking the life out of him. The zoologist dropped her eyes, scanning the humus-ridden ground for any sign of the attacking tendrils near where she and Rachel stood. She looked up again at the boy and could see that there was no hope for him.
"Come on, Doc. Nothing we can do here and I have no idea what reach those things have. We'd better keep moving." Lisa's voice was urgent.
"Yeah, you're right. Let's go." Rachel hesitantly turned, not wanting to leave the boy but knowing that he was already dead. She'd taken only a few steps when she stopped. "Lisa? I think we're in trouble." She felt the zoologist come up to her shoulder and they both looked on in horror at the sight that greeted them. A whole ten-foot stretch of the trail in front of them was covered in a writhing mass of milky white, sinuous tendrils.
"Ah, hell, we can't go back." Lisa's voice was entirely practical about the situation, and Rachel wondered why. She was positive they were staring death in the face and, from seeing what the soldier had just been through, she had no wish to see herself end that way.
"Lisa, have you ever seen anything like this before?"
"Yep, they're heat seekers; we need to get up high." The zoologist was turning in tight circles, head craned to find some way of getting off the ground. "And we need to do it quickly. The longer we stay still, the faster they'll find us. Start looking for a way up."
Hal hadn't even realised Rachel wasnt by his side until Susan, the geneticist, ran past him, screaming for all she was worth. He risked a look over his shoulder but neither Rachel nor Lisa nor Michaels' soldier was following. Then he realised the scream he had been positive his mind had made up had been one of them and, knowing Rachel as he did, he knew she would have stopped to help.
"Michaels!" he roared, trying to get the Sergeant's attention. Michaels didn't respond but Hal caught sight of one of his men and pushed himself to a faster run until he was able to grab hold of the soldier. "Radio Michaels, tell him we've lost three," he panted. The soldier did as instructed and within minutes the group had slowed to a halt.
Michaels stood in the middle of the group trying to calm everybody down. He looked up as Hal approached him. "What the hell was that about?" His voice was full of barely restrained anger.
"I'm not sure; Rachel got spooked by something. But we have a bigger problem. One of your men, Lisa Delgado and Rachel are missing. Susan might have a better idea what happened. She was with Lisa."
Rachel was getting to the point where running off into the underbrush and taking her chances seemed like a good idea. They only had a limited amount of space to search for a way up towards the canopy and their time was running short.
"I can't see anything," said Rachel. Adrenaline was pumping through her system, urging her into some form of action. She could feel the sweat pouring off her brow and her hands shook with nervous energy.
Lisa, on the other hand, stood with her hands on her hips willing an idea to come to her mind. She frowned as she saw a movement in the trees. Great; just what we need, another problem. "We have company."
Rachel stopped when she heard Lisa's voice. "What? Where?"
"Up in the branches. Most probably scavengers, coming to wait for feeding."
"Lisa, please. I need to be hearing that is our rescue team, not a bunch of animals waiting on our remains." Her gaze was intent on Lisa, which was why she let out a yell as something caressed her back. She froze; her eyes clenched tight shut, refusing to believe this was happening to her. "What is it?"
Lisa stood staring, her mouth gaping, struggling to comprehend what she was seeing. She scanned the surrounding area to see whether the rest of the team had backtracked but saw nothing.
"What is it?" Rachel's entreaty broke into her confusion.
"You know that rescue team you were talking about?" Rachel opened her eyes but still didn't look over her shoulder. "Well, girl, you must have a guardian angel watching over you." Lisa reached past the doctor and tugged on the vine that had dropped. "How are you at climbing?"
Bill Michaels stood looking back down the trail, running his hand through his hair. After several minutes of trying to get some sense out of Susan, they had learnt that Simon Jackson, the private assigned to rearguard duties, had tripped while running and that Rachel and Lisa had stopped to help him.
The problem he had now was, did he send anybody back to look for them? The fact that none of them had yet appeared seemed to suggest that they had fallen afoul of something. If Jackson had merely hurt himself he would have expected at least one of them to come for help. So now he had to decide whether the three of them were worth risking some of those who had got this far. That was, of course, assuming that there was something sinister back there and not just one of the girls having hysterics. But if he didn't take a squad back to look for them, the others on the science team were going to throw a fit because he hadn't.
"Okay," he sighed. "I'll take a small team back to look for them. The rest of you can wait here."
"I'm coming with you."
The Sergeant sent a baleful gaze at Hal. "And how long am I going to have to spend, telling you you're not?" he inquired.
"Too long," replied Hal. "So don't bother. Let's just get going."
Lisa looked edgily around her for the first time since the crisis had started. She had faced death a number of times due to her profession; it had almost become an everyday occurrence. Put her in front of a charging carnivore, she'd look it in the eyes and grin. Present her with a way out of the situation, however, and nerves began to creep in, as though she couldn't believe she was yet again going to escape the fates.
"Rachel, you're smaller than I am, so I'll boost you up. That way hopefully we can both get up high enough to be out of danger. But let's hurry. We have a few minutes, at most."
Rachel was feeling positively sick, and Lisa's constant frank assessment of their situation did little to help. On the other hand, it was refreshing not to be lied to and told everything would be all right when the odds were obviously against that. And, despite the fact they were in a terribly bad position, she actually took heart from Lisa's no-nonsense attitude. "Okay then, give me a boost and let's get climbing. How far up do you think we need to go?"
Lisa clasped her hands and offered them to Rachel, who placed her booted foot into them. "At least ten feet, but I'd prefer twenty. Ready?"
"Yep." Rachel grasped hold of the vine tightly.
"Here we go then." With a mighty heave Lisa pushed Rachel into the air, the doctor pulling herself up by her hands. With effort, Lisa got Rachel's feet to shoulder height then put her whole body beneath her and gave one last shove.
Rachel felt her weight pull down on her arms and feared her hands might start to slip. She wasn't the strongest of people but she managed to get by when the situation warranted. Not that she'd ever had to rely on climbing vines to get her out of danger. She'd expected the vine to be slippery, but the sap it produced was actually tacky. It provided her hands with a solid grip and she made good progress in hauling herself upward.
Seeing that the doc was having little difficulty in climbing, Lisa rubbed her hands together and jumped to give herself a bit of space between her and the wriggling tendrils that were rapidly encroaching on where they had been standing. Within seconds, she had climbed until Rachel's feet were in contact with her head and she felt a little of the nervous tension leave her body.
"Er Lisa?" came Rachel's voice, grunting with the effort of pulling herself up.
"How long are we gonna have to stay up here?"
"Depends. There's a similar plant on Zargrab IV that will wait for days for prey to descend. Then on Terris there are ones that are tree dwellers, but they only hang around for a few hours."
"Great." Rachel stopped climbing and felt Lisa's head butt her feet. "I thought you were a zoologist?"
"I am, but it's always good to know about the nastier things you're likely to run into when chasing furry animals about the place. Come on, keep climbing."
"I guess we're going all the way to the top then? You do realise that must be at least a hundred feet, don't you?"
"Better to have sore arms than to get eaten by the white worm down there, don't you think?"
"Good point." Rachel put a little more effort into her climb.
Gary Hall was in his late fifties. He loved his life and he loved his job. But if there were anything he could be certain of right at this moment, it was that he hated this planet. Oh, it was great that they were finding species of planets and animals that had long been lost to earth; it was good that the environment was so compatible with human physiology. What wasnt nice was that, even after nearly six months here, everyone still goofed off early to play.
Sixteen members of the expedition were hiking through the rainforest (well okay, they were officially working). Matt Jeffreys and his grad students, of which there were three, had taken a skimmer over to the coast to survey a massive shoal of fish that the high orbit scan had detected. And for that you could read that, yet again, he was indulging in his fondness for sun, sea and surf among other things. Of course they'd still come back with scientific data to prove that he'd been working, though his tan would say otherwise.
The canteen staff had decided that it was too hot to cook. They had arranged a barbecue for the evening repast, and were now playing volleyball. Most of the others were in their bunks reading or writing, generally taking it easy.
He threw his pen down onto the desk and stretched his arms above his head. He couldn't understand why the Confederation still insisted on hand-written daily reports when they wouldn't get to see them for at least another three months. He stood and grabbed hold of his mug, intending to get himself a coffee, when his door swung open and Clyde Hackman walked in.
"Gary, glad I caught you. We have a priority communication coming in from the Agrippa, want to come get a look at it?"
"Sure, Clyde. Let me just get some coffee. Any idea what it's about?"
"Nope. Sykes just hollered for you, very loudly, I might add. Wouldn't drop any little titbits my way, but I can tell you he's called everybody in. They'll be in orbit in about eight hours."
"Hell, what's that jerk up to now?" He poured thick, black, fragrant liquid into his mug. "Come on. Let's go find out."
Bill Michaels eventually left a huddled group of nine behind in a small clearing. Many arguments had taken place about whether they should go looking for the missing women and the young soldier. In the end, Bill had just told them to shut up and deal with the fact that four of them were going back to have a quick search before they lost what little light they had. He'd left four of his squad behind and five of the scientists.
He hadn't been able to persuade Hal to stay behind. To be honest, he didn't really think he would have been able to keep the biologist from coming along, short of shooting him, so he hadn't tried that hard. He lifted his arm and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirt. They couldn't have gotten more than a kilometre or so from the missing trio.
Although they were in a hurry, he didn't want to tempt fate by charging into an unknown situation and getting them all killed, so they moved at a slow pace. Bill stuck close to the biologist. He'd wanted to arm him but Hal had quietly explained how well he'd done in his firearms course and Bill had decided they'd all live longer keeping the weapon out of Hal's hands.
Hal was nervous and there was absolutely no reason to kid himself about it. Why he'd suggested he go along with the rescue team he had no idea. He liked the doc, without doubt, and he knew that if positions were reversed she'd be the first steaming back after him. But when all was said and done, she'd do that for anyone, whether she had a crush on the person or not. And Hal, though he would never admit it to the doctor's face, had fallen hard for her the very first time he'd set eyes on her. Her whole personality sang to him: her eyes, her laughter, her willingness to put herself on the line for others and her need to look beyond the obvious for the hidden meanings to life and the actions of those she met.
Hal truly believed that angels walked among the worlds disguised in various forms, but Rachel hadn't chosen her disguise well enough not to be recognised for what she was. It was hard to find anyone who had met her who would disagree with his assessment. She had a way of making people feel at ease with her. When the Doc was around people tended to get on with each other.
So here he was, walking back into lord knows what, because he had a crush on an angel, and just thinking about her made his nerves settle. Nothing bad would have happened to Rachel, she could charm the socks off of death himself. Hal stopped and looked around; something was bothering him about the area. The biologist crouched down and ran his hands through the earth.
"What's up?" Bill Michaels' voice startled him out of his contemplation.
"I'm not sure. But now that I'm not running hell bent through this area it reminds me of something I've seen before. I can't quite put my finger on it, though." He threw the dirt back down and stood up.
"Can anybody smell something?" Hal and Michaels looked around toward one of the soldiers accompanying them on their mission.
Hal raised his head and took a deep breath through his nose trying to detect anything unusual. "No, I can't. What is it that you smell?"
"Ammonia," said the soldier.
With a horrifying realisation Hal knew exactly what they were facing and also knew that it was very doubtful that Rachel, Lisa or the soldier they had stopped to help were alive. "We need to get out of here. Now." His heart felt heavy over what he knew Rachel and Lisa must have been through, but it was about survival now and he couldn't indulge himself in the grief he knew he needed to express.
Michaels frowned. "What about our three colleagues you were yelling at us to rescue not half an hour ago?"
"They're dead, and if they're not then they will be soon. Rachel was right. We are in danger and if we stay here we won't be alive for much longer either. Now move! We need to get back to the others."
"That's it. I've died and gone to hell," moaned Rachel as she finally pulled herself into the branches and took the weight off of her arms, which immediately screamed in protest at the punishment that she'd put them through. "No, scratch that. Hell couldn't be this painful. How you doing, Lisa?" she shouted back down toward the climbing zoologist.
"Make room for me, Doc. I'm right behind you." Her hand suddenly appeared on the thick bough Rachel was sitting on. Another grunt of effort and heave of tired arms and Lisa pulled her body up over the bough and into the relative safety of its cradle. "How far do you reckon that was, Doc?" she asked as she gazed down the vine they'd just climbed.
"Too far way too far." Rachel leaned her body back against the trunk, relaxed her tense muscles and closed her eyes. "Are we safe up here? 'Cause I could really use a break right about now."
"Tell me about it. God, my arms are killing me; I'm not going to be able to use them for days. And, in answer to your question, I have no idea if we are safe up here, but we are a lot better off than we were down there. And I think a break is a marvellous idea. You think your friend will keep watch?"
"My friend?" Rachel lazily opened her eyes and rolled her head in Lisa's direction.
"Yeah, you know your invisible friend. The one you like to talk to on your walks and the one who alerted you to the danger we were in."
"Oh. That invisible friend. How did you know about her?"
"Her? You think it's female?"
"Yeah, I get that feeling about her but you didn't answer my question."
Lisa smiled as she remembered an early morning walk she had taken a couple of weeks ago. She'd awoken and remembered that the young doctor liked her early morning jaunts. She figured she couldn't have been more than a few minutes behind Rachel and had decided to ask her if she wanted a little company.
The undergrowth that lined the trail still hid her when she'd heard the woman talking to someone. She'd peeked through the growth trying to find out who her mystery companion was and found the young woman conversing with the trees. It hadn't taken her long to figure out that Rachel was sure someone was watching her, and, of course, on that day she hadn't been wrong.
"I woke up early a few weeks ago. Thought I'd join you on your morning walk. Decided not to intrude when I heard you taking to your mystery friend."
"Oh." Rachel frowned. "You think I'm nuts?"
"Hell, girl, you are the sanest person I've ever met. If you say someone's there then I ain't doubting you, especially when she tells you something that keeps my ass out of the fire."
"Think I'll take that as a compliment and yeah, if you must know, I think if something were to threaten us up here she'd let us know."
"You ever see her?" Lisa's curiosity was definitely tweaked.
"Nah. Sometimes, though, when I'm walking in the morning, it's as though she's right next to me and if I reached out with my hand I could touch her. Of course, the first thing I always do is look and she's never there. But she's real; I'm sure of it."
"Has she ever spoken to you?"
"Not with words. Early on, I just felt anxiety and worry from her. Normally, I feel curiosity and questioning from her."
"You think she's the only one? Or do you think there is a whole civilisation here?"
"I have no idea; but I kinda hope there's a whole bunch of them, because, if there isn't, she's had an incredibly lonely life." It saddened her to think of someone being so alone like that. She closed her eyes, relaxing back against the tree, letting her mind wander. God, I hope the rest of you are okay, she thought, unwittingly echoing Lisa's silent musings.
Bill Michaels stood and stared at the biologist unbelievingly. "You're saying that you persuaded me to come back here and now the rest of the group is in danger? And from what exactly? It's not as if we've seen anything except a few bugs, for Christ's sake."
"Bill, this isn't an animal as such. It's a carnivorous plant, similar to the Venus flycatcher, but it's much, much bigger. And we are standing right in its hunting grounds. Now we've lost three to it, do you really want to stand around and see if it can get us, too?"
Bill's face actually broke into a smile, at the thought of a plant being such a threat. "So why haven't we seen it?" he said to the biologist's back as Hal turned away to walk back down the track toward the rest of the group.
He swung around when he heard the amusement in Bill's voice. "You bloody, military types are all the same, aren't you?" Hal's voice had dropped to a harsh whisper, letting loose the grief he was holding onto out against the sergeant. "Won't believe it can hurt you till it appears and bites you in the ass. Well, if this does turn up, it will erupt from the ground or drop from the trees and you won't know a thing about it till it has you in its clutches, squeezing the life out of you. Only thing is, it normally has a neurotoxin in the tentacles; that means you're conscious but paralysed and can't do a thing to help yourself. So think about whether you want to play macho soldier boy or whether we're going back to the others and getting the hell out of here."
"There has to be more than one of them," said Lisa, after a while of thought. Stretching her arms in front of her, she swatted away the myriad flying insects that now found them.
"You said you hoped there was more than one of them. There has to be more than one of them or how would they reproduce?"
"Good question, well presented and you're right. There has to be more than one of them, at least at some point in time." Rachel shifted uncomfortably, rubbing her back against the trunk of the tree they rested against. Her clothes were soaked through with sweat and she had little hope of getting them dry in this humidity. "Lisa, where's your pack?"
"A hundred feet or so, that-a-way." The zoologist pointed downward with her thumb. Then she opened her deep hazel eyes and peered at Rachel. "Where's yours?"
"About a hundred feet in the same direction."
"And your water bottle and purifiers?"
"In my pack. And yours?"
"Hell, same place as yours. You want to climb back down and get them?" The zoologist smiled at the doctor.
"I hope you're kidding; otherwise I might have to kill you," laughed Rachel, letting some of the strain of the day flow out of her body.
"Good job I'm kidding then, huh? We should be okay water-wise, anyway. The rainfall on this planet is pretty pure. And we have fruit to feed us. But we should think about moving soon and trying to catch up with the others."
"Well, the trees are large enough and strong enough to provide us with walkways as long as we're careful with our footing. We shouldn't have to descend until we're out of this area."
"Come on, then. We might as well get going." Lisa pushed herself into a standing position and balanced herself with the trunk as support. She dropped her other hand and offered it to Rachel.
Rachel looked up at the zoologist, Lisa wasn't particularly tall, but her musculature more than made up for what she lacked in stature. Her eyes intrigued Rachel; they seemed to shift colours depending on her mood. Now they were a deep green-brown colour, earlier when they'd been looking for an avenue of escape they had been bright green, almost emerald. She reached up and took the offered hand and got to her feet. "Any idea which way we ought to go?"
Lisa took a look at her watch and flipped a small toggle, changing it to a compass. "We want to head southeast, which is that way." She pointed along the bough they were standing upon.
"Wish we had some rope. At least we could tie onto something as we crossed."
"Think I can come up with something to satisfy you." Lisa
crouched and pulled a short-bladed knife from a sheath hidden in her thick-soled hiking
boots. "We wouldn't want to leave our escape route behind, now would we?" She
leant over and grabbed the vine that had so recently provided them with safe passage and
started pulling it up. "If you stay here and tie off on this end, I can cross the
bough and tie off on the other side; then you can untie and cross over. That way, should
one of us stumble, at least we shouldn't fall that far."
They traversed the gaps between the towering sentinels for several hours before it got too dark to go any further. Both Rachel and Lisa were a little disappointed that they hadn't found any sign of the rest of the group, though, in reality, they hadn't moved very far from their starting point. They'd taken turns to be first to go from tree to tree and even with the security of being tied off, progress was slow. Sometimes they had to descend to lower branches to continue in the direction they wanted to travel, sometimes they had to climb higher. Very occasionally they would have to go in the totally wrong direction before finding a way to get back on track.
Both women were exhausted from their ordeal and it wasn't just their earlier adventures in climbing that wrung the strength from them. Before today they'd hiked well over twenty kilometres a day for several days. The humidity and constant buzz of the forest kept even the most hardened traveller awake at night, so sleep had been at a premium.
The decision had been made early on that the home comforts they had brought with them would stay packed until they reached their destination, so the luxury of tents hadn't been available. Right now, Rachel was about willing to trade anything even for the dubious comfort of a tent.
It had started raining shortly after they crossed from the first tree and hadn't stopped until they had decided to call it a day. The only plus to that was that the insects had been kept to a minimum but now, even with long trousers, boots and long-sleeved shirts, they were about to become evening meal for the local wildlife. Admittedly it was unlikely to kill them, but Rachel had to keep reminding herself that they hadn't been this far into the rainforest before and, despite its familiarity, this wasn't earth. There was still the possibility that there were diseases and vectors that they hadn't discovered yet.
"Rach?" Lisa nudged the medic to get her attention. "I'm going to pull a bit of this foliage down and try constructing some form of shelter for us. It might keep some of the bugs away and shield us from the rain if it starts up again."
"Okay I'll have a quick look around and see if I can find something edible."
"Good. Don't leave this tree if you can help it and yell out every few minutes just so I know you're okay."
"You got it. You do the same, too."
The two women split up, Lisa to the higher boughs of the tree to collect branches to be woven into a shelter and Rachel to the outer reaches to search for fruit. Quietly, one tree over, a silent figure sat and watched. Eggshell-blue eyes focused mainly on the blonde woman, but occasionally wandered to her darker-haired companion. Food and shelter seemed to be their priority. Making a quick decision, the figure moved lightning fast and disappeared.
Lisa smiled as Rachel's voice echoed into the quickly darkening evening air. The zoologist hollered back then returned her thoughts to the collection of branches before her. All of the Confederation exped teams were trained in various forms of survival. Lisa had been particularly efficient at sea survival for some reason. She found it amusing that someone who rarely went to sea found herself so adept at surviving there.
She would have gratefully swapped her expertise at sea for land survival. Like everybody else, she had passed her training or she wouldn't have been here, but she wasnt exactly the best to be weaving branches into shelters. However, she now had a passable roof; all they would need to keep the worst of the insects away were some walls.
Unlike Lisa, Rachel was having little success at finding a food source. Most of the fruits in the area were at the very outer reaches of the tree or had remarkable defence systems to avoid being violated by anything other than what nature had designed for it.
Yeah--great idea--I'll get the food. I wonder if Lisa wants to swap? She spent half an hour trying to get sticky gunk off of her hands after some parasitic plant sprayed it at her for getting too close. Then she had almost got her hands on a bunch of what looked like the mangoes you used to be able to find on earth, except they were bigger. They'd ended up falling the hundred feet down to the forest floor after a small primate had jumped out and frightened her to death.
This trip wasn't turning out to be the fun Rachel had hoped it would be. Feeling a little desolate that she hadn't been able to provide for them, Rachel turned and carefully made her way back to where they had decided to spend the night.
Lisa looked up as the bough dipped slightly under the added weight of her travelling partner. The zoologist was pretty proud of herself. She had found an area where several large boughs sprung from the tree, making a small but safe platform. With a bit of work, she had wedged her woven roof into place and then spent the rest of her time fixing branches between the boughs to create sides.
"Why the frown?" the zoologist asked as Rachel got closer.
"Do you have any idea how hard it is to get food even though we're surrounded by it?"
"Yep!" replied Lisa in a cheerful voice. "Though I thought you'd done pretty well, myself."
Rachel looked up in shock. "What?" The doctor scrambled over the last of the distance separating them, bent beneath Lisa's raised arm and peered into the shelter she had constructed. There in a tightly woven basket sat a selection of various fruits. Even more impressive was the water holder made from two large leaves glued together with the same sticky substance that had coated her hands.
"Lisa, I hate to tell you this but I didn't get any of this."
"What do you mean, you didn't collect any of it? Sure you did. I was most impressed with the water carrier. It's pretty solid; should last for a few days or more."
"Lisa, the nearest I came to getting us food was dropping it when some monkey-like creature jumped at me and nearly caused a heart attack. I didn't get any of this stuff."
Hazel eyes gazed down at the young doctor, the zoologist's voice taking on a serious tone. "You're not kidding, are you?"
"No, I'm not kidding."
"Well, in that case, I'd say we have your guardian angel to thank once more."
Well, I have to admit someone is watching over me. I just pray that the others are being looked after as well as we are. Rachel sadly smiled at Lisa and nodded her agreement.
Darkness fell quickly once dusk arrived and so did the temperature. Even though it wasn't cold as such, the two women were in wet clothing and even the slightest change in the outside temperature made the air chill to them. So they sat inside their tree house side by side huddled for warmth, eating the fruit so generously provided by their guardian.
"So you think she's humanoid?" Lisa was fascinated by the topic of Rachel's mysterious watcher. "Maybe she didn't originate on this planet; maybe they crashed here or something." Now that would be a discovery to take back. How the hell do you survive here by yourself?
"It's a possibility, but we didn't find any evidence of that on the scans we made before landfall. They assured us that there wasn't any humanoid life on the planet."
"Maybe she isn't humanoid. Maybe it's a sentient primate or something?" Oh yeah, I really believe that. Nope, I'm pretty sure Rachel is right about her friend.
"Yeah, but then I would definitely have expected to encounter more than one of them. If she evolved here, there would have to be a clan or some form of society. A single intelligent life form would be an evolutionary anomaly." Rachel was enjoying this conversation. Most people thought she'd lost a few neurones when she insisted that someone or something had been watching her. But now that they'd actually been presented with evidence, her watcher couldn't be denied.
"You're right. Though it's not unheard of for a single member
of a species to show intelligence, it's normally associated with close contact with
another intelligent life form." Lisa's face was one of studious concentration.
"Okay then. We have decided that if she's humanoid then she's the survivor, or maybe the descendant of survivors, from some accident. Why haven't our scans picked her up?"
"That could be put down to a number of things. If she stays primarily in the rainforest, most probably her life signs were indistinguishable from the multitude of signs found within it."
"Or maybe her life signs are so similar they can't be told apart? Okay, I can buy that. So why did she pick me?"
Lisa's face slowly broke into a smile and she looked across at Rachel. "I think that is pretty obvious. You spoke to her. How many people would actually start speaking to someone they can't see? If I get spooked out in the forest I certainly don't hold a conversation with whatever's spooking me. And you have a tone to your voice that's very soothing. She most probably reacted to that."
Rachel sat pondering Lisa's comments. It occurred to her that they might now have a bit of a problem. "Doesn't that mean we are now obligated to find her? If she is a survivor or descendant and alone here, doesn't that mean we should take her back with us?"
"Why don't we worry about that once we get out of this mess? We still have a couple more months here. We have no real evidence that she's humanoid and we have bigger problems; like finding the rest of our group." If they're still alive.
"You're right, you're right, I know you're right, but that won't stop it from keeping me awake at night thinking about it. We ought to at least try to get some sleep. You think it's safe enough or should we take watches?"
"I don't think either of us would manage to stay awake for long, so we might as well snuggle down together." Rachel raised her eyebrows and Lisa just grinned, thinking she might actually have made the doctor blush.
Rachel could feel her hair plastered to her skin, her clothes still damp from yesterday's exertions, when she woke the next morning. The next thing she noticed, besides the crick in her neck, was that she'd somehow managed to manoeuvre herself so that her head rested in Lisa's lap. Oh great, and how do I explain this if she wakes up? She carefully raised her head so as not to disturb the still slumbering zoologist.
Lisa's head was propped against the tree, her legs stretched out in front of her along a branch that formed the base of their shelter. She looked pretty comfortable, but the doctor in Rachel noticed the thick dark stains of exhaustion beneath her eyes and knew her own would most probably be the same.
Deciding that she could afford to let Lisa sleep a while longer, Rachel lifted the side of their shelter and crept out to see if she could find anything for breakfast. She needn't have worried. Just as had happened last night, a small cache of food and water had been left outside their accommodation. A small smile crept onto her face; she really wanted to meet this person.
Lisa opened her eyes several minutes after Rachel had left, missing the warm comfort of her nearness. She'd woken up during the night to find the young doctor curled up with her head on her lap, but the girl looked so comfortable that she hadn't wanted to wake her. Lisa stretched her arms above her head, trying to get all the kinks out of her still aching body. In spite of yesterday's unusual activities she didn't feel as bad as she thought she might.
Rachel lazily looked over as Lisa appeared through the sides of their shelter. She was sitting on the branch, her legs dangling over the drop beneath, munching on some of the fruit that had been provided.
Lisa grunted in response.
"Our benefactor has provided again." That seemed to wake Lisa up and the zoologist quickly made her way to Rachel's side.
"Great," said Lisa as she grabbed hold of one of the fruit and bit into its succulent skin, juice dribbling down her chin. "Shelter held up well last night."
"Yeah, you did a good job with that. I only got bitten once or twice, too."
"You did better than me then. Some little bugger was at me all night."
"Lisa " Rachel's voice was quiet. "Do you think the others got away?"
The zoologist paused before answering. "I don't know, Rachel. I really don't know."
Several hours later Lisa was braced between two branches of a tree, holding tightly to Rachel's legs.
"Rachel, if you wiggle much more I'm gonna drop you. Can you see what it is, or not?"
"I'm not wriggling and, no, I can't. We're too high up. We'll need to get further down to see what it is." Rachel was dangling beneath the branches, peering into the gloomy shadows thrown by the trees in the midday sun. "Here." She reached her hand back. "Pull me up?"
"And how am I supposed to do that? I've got your legs. Or were you planning on falling first?"
"Very funny. Can you pull me back at all?"
Lisa quickly looked around her and, seeing she had space to her left, edged herself over. "Yeah, I can just a bit. Hold on, and I'll get you up as far as I can." The zoologist leant herself backwards as much as possible, carefully pulling on Rachel's legs and heaving her upward.
Rachel flung her hand back and grasped hold of the branch as she felt her body rise up slowly. Tensing her abdominal muscles and pulling hard, she got herself back onto the bough. "If we do that again, we are going to have to plan it better. Do you think we can get any lower?"
Lisa peered down into the gloom again. "If we look around a bit we might be able to find a way." She wiped her forehead with the back of her arm, beads of sweat continually annoying her. The air about them was so thick that it made breathing difficult. They had to rest frequently whilst they travelled.
They'd stopped in this tree because its branches were wide and offered some shelter from the frequent downpours of torrential rain that threatened to wash their footing from beneath them. They sat silently for several minutes trying to recoup some of their expended energy.
Almost simultaneously, they'd noticed the smell of decay wafting up from the forest floor beneath them. They had both looked at each other, thinking the worst but openly saying that some animal had obviously fallen foul of the carnivorous plant. But both of them knew that the chances of that were very low. The stench was now almost overpowering and the death of one animal wouldn't have been that noticeable in a rainforest where decaying matter was an everyday odour.
Although they were both reluctant to admit it they knew they had to find out whether any of the group had managed to survive. Lisa had pointed out to Rachel that Hal was an excellent biologist and he would likely as not figure out what they were up against. The chance that somehow some of them had survived was pretty good. Likely as not they would be doing exactly what the two women were now doing, and that was trying to get out of its territory.
"Well," said Rachel, brushing her hands against her damp trousers, "we'd better get moving again. We might be able to find a way to get lower."
Another downpour had led to another stop, for which Rachel and Lisa were profoundly grateful. Exhaustion was taking its toll. Rachel's face was streaked with grime where her continuous perspiration had run and her frequent wiping had smudged it across the rest of her face. Her golden hair hung lank and dull and she twisted it into a tail and tied it back to keep it out of her eyes. Her blistered hands had several scrapes and scratches where the wet surface had caused her to lose her footing and resulted in her clinging hold of whatever came to hand to prevent her falling.
Lisa hadn't fared much better. One particularly nasty slip resulted in a deep gash to her face, which Rachel had spent a long while trying to stop bleeding. She also had several bruises covering her body where she'd bashed herself as they traversed the arboreal heights. Her clothing was torn in several places, as well, as branches and twigs had reached out to snag her.
They had achieved their aim of getting lower and had descended another thirty feet or so. They could see the litter of leaves and dead wood scattered over the forest floor. But their worst fears had also been realised. The devastation that had been wreaked upon the group was unlike either of them had ever witnessed.
They had started out as a happy, cheerful group of sixteen: eight civilian personnel and eight military escorts who, despite the fact that they carried weapons and were for all purposes on duty, had actually volunteered to accompany the scientists on their trip into the rainforest. It was heartrending to see how those young men and women had fought so hard to keep their charges alive. Two of the soldiers had backed themselves up to the tree line, with two of the scientists behind them. Their guns and knives had been useless against their foe and, despite their valiant effort; the two scientists had been unable to make their escape before they had all fallen. A set of footprints bore evidence of another compatriot's struggle for life. They ended at the edge of the trail into the undergrowth.
Rachel felt a tear roll its way down her cheek. An immense feeling of desolation ached in her heart. People had died and, although she'd been on expeditions where people had died, it had never been on this scale. A few accidents and illnesses were expected, but the near total destruction of the small group was unheard of. "Christ, Lisa, what do we do now?"
"Find the others. They're not all down there. Hal, Bill, some of the soldiers and a couple of our people aren't accounted for. They may have gotten away, especially if they found a way into the trees."
"And if they didn't, then we're stuck in the middle of a rainforest by ourselves, with at least a 5-day hike to get back to the camp." If we don't find anybody else alive, Lisa and I aren't going to survive this. Christ, that's shallow isn't it? People are dead and I'm sitting here wondering whether Lisa and I will still be alive in a few days.
"Sounds good, doesn't it? God, this is a disaster. Rachel, I know things don't look good but we can't change what has happened. We need to concentrate on keeping ourselves alive." Lisa looked around her once more, searching for some sort of clue to what might have happened to those who seemed to have escaped the fate the others had faced. "We have a couple of more hours of light; let's make use of it."
Wedged in a tree between two thick boughs barely fifteen feet above the deadly ground, Bill rested his head back and sighed. It had been sheer luck that he'd seen the branch within leaping distance, even more luck when he managed to keep hold of it and pull himself into relative safety.
The biologist Hal had also been in luck and was sitting in arboreal clutches a little further down the trail. He'd pulled Private Adams up to the safety of the wooden heaven; the young soldier was the last to run from the disaster behind them, struggling to pull one of the civilians with her. Hal saw the scientist fall and Adams stop to assist him. He thought the young woman dead, as well, but several seconds later he saw her blood-streaked form fly past beneath him. Hal had been secure enough in his perch to reach down and flag the woman towards safety.
After some time had passed and they knew that the immediate danger was gone, Bill yelled over to Adams to find out if she were okay, worried by the blood he'd seen on her face. She replied that she was fine but that she'd lost her pack in the frantic flight to safety did anybody still have a medipac on them? Bill's quick check over his kit produced the silver foiled pack. Getting it to her was a slight problem, but a well aimed tossing and a rather spectacular catch by Hal secured it for her.
Now they had fallen silent, each attempting to come to terms with what had occurred, trying to block out the screams of their friends.
Bill heard it first, a faint yell coming from somewhere above them. He ignored it at first, thinking that it was his mind playing tricks on him. But a minute or so later he heard it again, this time much closer and louder. He shifted, looking up into the twisted foliage above him. The call came once more and he noticed Hal and Adams getting to their feet, peering upward. "You hear it, too?" he shouted over to them. Hal nodded as the call came again.
"Anybody out there?" the disembodied voice yelled into the gathering gloom.
"Down here!" Hal shouted, head craned back, straining for a reply.
Rachel and Lisa grinned at each other as a familiar voice came drifting up to them from the shadows.
"Hal! Is that you?" Rachel yelled back.
"None other. Keep talking, Lisa and I are going to see if we can get over to you."
Hal rested his forehead on the thick bark of the tree, relief flooding through him. Rachel was alive. "You and Lisa okay?"
Rachel carefully balanced as she and Lisa traversed the slippery boughs, trying to at least head in the direction Hal's voice was coming from. "Yeah, Hal, we're okay a little battered and bruised, tired, but we are okay. What about you?"
Hal let out a short laugh. "I'm alive, what more do you want!"
Rachel's face creased into a grin. "A bath would be a good start, some decent food and my bed! Anybody else down there with you, Hal?"
"Yeah, Rach, I've got Bill Michaels and Private Adams. But nobody else got out!"
Lisa got herself into a secure position and reached out and pulled Rachel off of the bough. "I think they are below us. It would be better to get them up here; we have a little more freedom to move around."
"Okay, how do you want to go about getting them up here?"
"Thought we'd use ye olde trusty vine. Tie it off up here and get them to climb, like we did."
"Hal's gonna love that. You tie it up; I'll tell them what we're going to do." Lisa nodded and climbed up to the next bough to tie off the vine that was looped over her shoulders. Rachel sat down, legs astride the thick branch they had been standing on. "Hal! We're going to throw down a vine for you and the others to climb up. Lisa thinks you'll be safer if we get you higher up. The boughs are pretty well entwined up here and moving between the trees is easier."
Hal looked at Adams as she sat nearby, listening to the conversation. "You gonna be okay to make the climb?"
The young soldier raised an eyebrow. "Are you?" she asked. She pushed herself to her feet and climbed up to the next branch; a little ticked that Hal had asked such a pathetic question of her. Especially since she'd been carrying double pack because he'd been unable to carry his.
Hal shrugged off the challenging reply, totally oblivious to the insult he'd just directed towards the private. He redirected his gaze over at Bill. "Bill, can you get over to us?"
Would I still be here if I could? "No, Hal. You and Adams better climb up first then see if you can get the vine down closer to me."
The biologist nodded just as the vine dropped a handbreadth in front of him.
The climb was as arduous for Hal and Private Adams as it had been for Rachel and Lisa the previous day. But at least there was a warm, welcoming hand to help them the last few feet and, in Hal's case, a bone-crushing hug from the young doctor.
Between them, Rachel and Lisa rapidly pulled the vine back into the tree and crossed to a position nearer to Bill so that the sergeant could climb into the heights as well. It was fully dark when Bill finally sat with the rest of them. Little had been said whilst Bill was climbing, each person aware that no words could express the emotions that they were feeling.
Lisa explained to Private Adams how they had sheltered overnight and the young woman immediately set to work to provide the expanded group with cover. The structure wasn't much bigger than the one that Lisa had built. Before the light was totally gone they each entered and settled down for the night.
Rachel sat quietly like everybody else but the silence was an oppressive blanket, smothering what needed to be said. She put up with it for as long as she could before speaking. "What happened?"
Rather than break the tension, Rachel's question heightened it; everybody seemed to shift, trying to ease their discomfort at the same time. "It's not going to go away." Rachel kept her voice calm, knowing that despite the silence they needed to talk about their experiences.
Rachel turned her head in the darkness to where Bill sat. "Excuse me?"
"You want to talk, Doc, then talk. Tell us what happened to you."
Do I really want to talk about what happened? Do I really want to remember what I've seen in the last two days? Do I want to feel that terror again? Honestly? No, but then I'm the one who thinks talking will help, so I guess I have to start.
"Okay then." Rachel thought back to the initial fear that had prodded her mind so hard that she hadn't been able to stop the urge to flee. "I don't know what it was." Well, that's a lie. I know exactly what it was that made me run. But right now the only person who would believe me is Lisa. "But as we were walking down the trail I knew something was wrong. I couldn't figure out what it was, I just knew it. Call it woman's intuition, if you want. But the longer we stayed on the trail the worse it got. I kept urging Hal to walk faster until, in the end, we were running. Before long everyone was running and I felt this terrible wave of fear following us.
"I looked back to make sure Lisa and Susan were following us and I saw your man behind them go down. I thought at first that he'd just fallen so I stopped and turned back to help him. Lisa stopped, too, but there was nothing we could do to help him. These milk-white tendrils had wrapped themselves around him. Even from where we stood we knew it was too late to do anything.
"We couldn't have been there for more than a few minutes but when we turned to follow none of you were in sight and our path was blocked by more of the tendrils. Lisa thought they might be of the same species as a carnivorous plant on Zargrab IV so we looked for a way to get up off the ground. We found a vine and climbed, started looking for the rest of you and that's it."
"That's it?" Hal's voice was sharp and more than a little disturbed. "You didn't think to call to the rest of us when you stopped? Didn't it occur to you that we'd come back looking for you once we realised you were both missing?"
"Of course we thought about it!" Lisa answered even though the question was directed toward Rachel. "But by the time we realised we were in trouble you were long gone. Calling you back wouldn't have done anything except put us all in a dangerous situation." Lisa found it hard to believe that this conversation was going on. Couldn't he be happy that they were alive instead of trying to place blame?
Still upset, Hal persisted. "Dangerous situation? Do you think we would have stopped if I hadn't realised you weren't with us? We would have carried on running. We might have been able to get out of the area."
It was Rachel's turn to answer this time. "And we might not have. There is no point in placing blame here, Hal. None of us could have prevented what happened. You know that if we had to do it all again I'd still stop and try to help that boy." Rachel's words had a calming effect, and the tension that had built began to fade. "Now tell us what happened to you guys?"
If there had been enough light to see clearly, the look on Bill's face would have told the story. Instead his voice filled the air, recounting the horror he'd witnessed and survived. "We came looking for you. Hal, myself and two of my men. Didn't get too far though before Chilvas caught hold of this smell of ammonia "
"I figured out what it was." Hal's voice echoed into the darkness. "It wasn't that difficult. I should have picked up on it earlier. The soil type was right; that sweet smell of decay that was only just noticeable. Then when Chilvas smelt the ammonia I just knew what it was. Never expected to run into a carnivorous plant species here. Hell, nobody really believed they existed on Zargrab until they ate someone. I didn't see how you guys could have survived. I honestly didn't think any of us were going to survive. We turned back "
They'd started off at a jog but had picked up speed, as the feeling of foreboding grew stronger. They pelted into the small clearing, startling all those that they'd left behind. Already in a state of near-hysteria, Susan, the young geneticist who'd been walking with Lisa, burst into tears for the second time that day. Paul Timmons once again came to her rescue and put a comforting arm around her shoulders.
"Mind telling us what all the hurry is about?" the lab tech asked, a little put out that Bill and Hal's behaviour had yet again caused Susan such distress. It had been bad enough when they'd questioned her about the reason that Rachel and Lisa had stopped in the first place. Getting a coherent explanation from her had verged on the impossible.
"We're moving out." Bill's voice brooked no argument. "There is a good possibility we are in a hostile environment. We need to get moving, now!"
"But what about Rachel, Lisa and your soldier?" Bill turned to look at the second of the lab techs they'd brought with them, a young male of Indian origin whom everybody called Ahmed because his real name was unpronounceable.
"We don't believe they are alive and the risk has become too great for us to continue with a rescue mission. Now enough of these questions. Pick your stuff up and let's get moving."
"So everybody picked up their packs and that was when it hit. Private Thompson was the first to spot it. When he moved his backpack a tendril shot out toward him. He managed to dodge it but the whole group panicked."
Hal shifted, gently bumping into Adams who sat by his side. "Bill yelled at everybody to run for it but it seemed to be everywhere. Thompson and Fernandez managed to get Susan and Paul away from the worst of it but guns were of little use and they had to use their knives. So the neurotoxins got them pretty quickly. Susan and Paul didn't get far after that. Susan got taken around the throat. Paul tried to help her, got tangled by the feet and within seconds they were both covered.
"Everybody else ran. Ahmed went in the totally opposite direction to everybody else; I have no idea what happened to him. Picardo and Chilvas tried to fight it off using their machetes, even though they knew they were useless against it, giving the rest of us time to get away. I don't know what happened to the others, I was too busy running." Silence settled over the small group as Rachel and Lisa waited for somebody else to take up Hal's tale.
"Mahadek and Jens left the trail and went into the trees. I lost sight of them pretty quickly but they might have gotten away." Adams' voice took up where Hal had left off. "I knew Chilvas and Picardo had gone down; I could hear their screams dying behind us. If we'd had just one flamer between us it wouldn't have mattered, we could have fried it. Franco was just ahead of me but the ground fell away beneath him, he fell into a mass of the stuff. Nothing I could do to get him out," Adams paused, struggling to keep her voice under control. "I ended up taking a detour into the trees myself but there were masses of it there, too. Got whipped in the head by something, which is what lacerated my face. The next thing I really remember is hauling myself into the tree."
"So," said Rachel after a few minutes, feeling the need to break the palpable tension that was in the air. "Now that the immediate crisis is over, what do we do?"
"First thing we do," said Lisa before anybody else could speak, "is rest. We can't travel any further tonight and we could all do with a little shut-eye." Murmurs of agreement came from everyone and they all settled down to their own thoughts and, eventually, sleep.
It wasn't the early morning light or the patter of rain that eventually woke the weary survivors the next day, but the sounds of engines hovering above them. Bill was the first awake and he hastily shook the rest of them into consciousness. He looked up, straining to see through the foliage above him, and sure as the sky above was blue, there was one of the camp's shuttles hovering above them.
"What the hell are they doing out here?" Bill asked the question everybody wanted the answer for. "We weren't supposed to check in until this evening. They couldn't know we were in trouble."
"Maybe one of the others got a distress call out," suggested Rachel.
"Maybe, but I doubt it," the sergeant replied. "It is more likely that Gary tried to get us on the radio and, when he couldn't raise us, he sent out a search party. It isn't as if we got lost or anything. We've stayed on the path we planned to take. So, it wouldn't have been hard to find us with the scans."
"Actually," said Hal, "it will be more interesting to see how they pick us up from here."
"They'll winch us." All eyes turned to Private Adams.
"They won't be able to get the cable down to us through the foliage," replied Hal.
"No, she's right. They'll just send somebody down on the winch to clear the path," Bill said, supporting his sole remaining squad member. "See, they're sending somebody down now."
"Oh, joy." Lisa who had remained silent till now spoke up. "Another experience to add to my list of things never to repeat."
"And here was me, thinking you were the adventurous one in the group." Despite the appalling situation they'd been through, Rachel found herself grinning at Lisa's lack of enthusiasm for their method of rescue.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," grouched the zoologist.
A tense silence settled over the small group as they watched the winchman push his way past the dense foliage that barred his way. Adams climbed up the next few branches to guide their rescuer down to a safe footing.
"Where are the rest?" the male voice enquired, looking at Bill. The sergeant shook his head, leaving the words unspoken, knowing that they needn't be said to the young man who had been in this same situation countless times before. The winch man nodded his understanding. "Okay, then. It will take a few runs to get you all up to the shuttle." Without further explanation, the young man signalled for Lisa to step forward and secured her into a strop harness before contacting the shuttle to begin the retrieval.
It was nearly an hour later before all five of them were safely seated in the air-conditioned chill of the shuttle. The crew quickly broke out fresh clothing, and food and water, for the survivors they had picked up, and then left them to their own thoughts.
Bill made his way up to the flight compartment to radio back to Gary what had occurred to the exped party. It had taken them five days to hike out this far into the forest; it would take them less than an hour to return to the camp. Bill returned to them, shortly after they began the journey back, with unsettling news. The whole expedition was being called back to Confederation space. In less than a day they would leave the planet.
Rachel sat quietly, staring out of the window; Lisa sat next to her immersed in her own thoughts. It was unheard of to call an expedition back to Confederation space. Now that it was happening, nobody knew quite what to think and a stunned silence enveloped the shuttle.
Rachel's eyes scanned the tree-scape below, her mind turning over the events of the last few days. As she tried to find some reason the Confederation would pull them out, the only conclusion she could come to was that it wasn't good, whatever it was.
A sigh from Rachel pulled Lisa from her thoughts and she looked over to the doctor, wondering just what was going through that intelligent mind of hers. The well-defined face gave nothing away but Lisa suspected she knew one of the young woman's concerns. "We won't have time to try to find our silent benefactor now." Lisa tried not to sound too harsh but she knew that nothing would make the situation better for Rachel.
"I know," Rachel said quietly, resting her head on the cool surface of the Plexiglas window.
"Maybe we can come back, once whatever they have pulled us out for resolves." Lisa was searching for some way to alleviate the sadness she saw in her friend's face.
"Maybe. But let's be honest; they wouldn't have pulled us out for a minor problem and, with our research incomplete, the chances of us coming back here are slim." Rachel looked at Lisa. "We can't even prove that she's real; we only suspect. Both you and I know that no evidence equals no expedition." Her head thudded back onto the window and she returned her gaze to the forest below.
Lisa went back to her thoughts, knowing that Rachel was right. They wouldn't return to this planet without compelling evidence, and they just didn't have any. If there were a solitary survivor of some crash or some sentient form of life on this planet then, unless it walked into camp on their return, it would remain alone.
Rachel felt the thudding of her heart increase. The ground below had suddenly fallen away as the shuttle shot out over a great sheer cliff. The section of forest they had been travelling in had obviously been on some form of escarpment, none of which she remembered from the satellite photos and geological surveys she'd pored through before they had landed.
The change made her sit up and take note of what she was looking at, eyes intently searching the details of the ridge of rock that the tree line didn't quite cover. Her heart stopped; the air rushed from her lungs. There she was, crouched on an outcropping of rock that hung over the vast drop to the forest below, black hair blown back by the wind. Then they were past and she was gone from sight, seen by nobody but Rachel.
The doctor felt her heart clench in a vice-like grip. She had held out some hope that her watcher would have gone back to the vicinity of the camp and that she would be able to persuade her to show herself and go with them. If she were out here this far from the camp that would never happen. She doubted even she would be able to convince Gary to send a search party out. She felt tears building and closed her eyes, refusing to let them fall; then she sat back into her seat, not wanting to see any more of the scenery below, knowing that when she left she would be leaving a piece of herself behind.
Continued - Part 2
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