Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chapter Thirty

Price had left Monier and Coollege behind, hidden under the large flowering bush. Monier slept while Coollege kept her eyes opened, searching for anything that didn't belong. Price had crawled away, first deeper into the woods, but when it looked as if there would be no break in the forest for a long distance, he turned and headed for the open field. He wanted a view of the sky and the horizon. He wanted to see if there was life, intelligent life, anywhere on the planet.

As he neared the edge of the forest, he could see the light bleeding in. He got down on his stomach and crawled forward slowly, being careful not to make noise. It wasn't that he believed there was anyone around to hear him, or to see him, it was his training. He'd been taught to follow the procedures even when it seemed those procedures would do nothing to enhance the mission. It was when procedure was ignored that disaster happened.

He reached the edge of the forest. His impression from the night hadn't been wrong. It looked as if the forest had been cut away in a straight line. But the field didn't hold a crop. It was a tangle of green, red and yellow vines, bushes and grasses. There was a waving line of taller, brown grass off to one side and he suspected that marked the course of a stream or maybe some kind of drainage ditch.

He laid at the edge of the forest, in the shadow of a large tree with a greenish trunk. He didn't know if that was the result of a fungus growing on it or if the bark was naturally that color. Laying next to it, he still couldn't tell.

There was no movement anywhere around him except for a gentle waving of the grass in the light breeze. Nothing flew over the field. No birds or insects were anywhere around.

Normally, in a forest, there would be the calls of birds, the cries of animals, and the scramble of tiny claws on the trees, rotting vegetation and the wood. Here there was nothing. No sound at all.

He watched the sky overhead, assuming that if there was anything to see, it would be there. Maybe a high flying airplane. Maybe a helicopter or small aircraft of some kind. There was nothing other than some strange colored clouds. They looked muddy.

Satisfied that there was nothing to see, Price pushed himself away from the edge of the forest. He stood up and walked, naturally and unhurriedly, back to the bush where Coolledge and Monier waited for him.

He got to his hands and knees and crawled under the bush. Coollege was sitting with her back against the thick trunk. She was sipping water and blinking rapidly. "Something is stinging my eyes," she said quietly.

In a normal tone of voice, Price said, "Probably something given off by the flowers."

"Should you be talking out loud like that?"

"There is nothing around here. Nothing at all. I think we're wasting our time. I think we should make tracks for the city and not worry about anything else."

"SOP," said Coollege.

"Is designed as a guideline and not as orders to be followed without modification."

"Yes, sir."

Monier stirred, rolled to her side and stretched, seeming to forget where she was. She said, "What in the hell..." And then she remembered.

"Are you getting anything?"

Monier closed his eyes and fell silent. After a moment she said, "I can detect nothing other than us. Nothing at all. Not even insects."

"You can read insects?" asked Coollege in a surprised tone of voice.

"I can detect them. I can't read them. I can't read you either. I can get impressions."

"Nothing around?" said Price.


Price sat down and crossed his legs. He was hunched slightly, ducking under a branch heavy with flowers. He reached up to push it away and felt a sudden stinging in his eyes. He blinked rapidly and looked away.

"Defense mechanism," said Monier.

"Now she's going to tell us that she can read plants."

"Electrical signals transmitted by them," she said. "Same as with insects. Electrical activity... there are plants on Earth that..."

"We don't need a lecture here," said Price.

"Yes, sir."

Price looked at his watch. It gave him a frame of reference, even if it meant nothing on this planet. "I want to get moving. We have a lot of territory to explore."

"Message to fleet?"

"Nothing to report."

Coollege nodded, pulled a small hand held radio from her pack. She touched the keypad, put in the message and then asked, "Is that it?"

"Yeah...wait. Tell them that we have found no sign of animal life. Plant life but no animals or insects."

"Is that important?" asked Monier.

Price shrugged. "In intelligence everything might be important."

"Data loaded and ready for burst transmission."

"Go ahead."

"Message off."

"Already?" asked Monier.

"A burst transmission of a nanosecond," said Price "is nearly impossible to detect."


Coollege had finsihed repacking the radio. "I'm ready to go."

Price hesitated and then shook his head. "Monier, you have the point again. Straight north, toward the city. Steady pace. Stay under cover and if you come to an open area, you halt. If you pick up any unidentified readings, you halt. If you don't understand something, you halt."

"Yes, sir."

"Why does she have the point again?" asked Coollege.

"Because she has the best chance of spotting an ambush if there is one."


"Let's go," said Price.

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