Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chapter Twenty-six

Price crouched in the darkness his hand on the smooth bark of a tree trunk. It was so dark in the forest that Price couldn't see anything other than the black shape of the tree and a single bush about two feet from him. Overhead, through a break in the canopy, he thought he could see a small portion of the night sky. He knew that Coolledge and Monier were in forest somewhere but he couldn't actually see them.

"We can't travel through this, Tree," said Coollege softly She was to his right.

"We could drop back and skirt the edge of the woods," said Price. "At least we could see one another."

"Standard procedure says that we travel across the worst possible terrain and at night or bad weather."

"Doctrine doesn't mean squat here," said Price. "Besides, that's escape and evasion."

"If I might interrupt," said Monier. "I'm getting nothing here. Anywhere around here. I think it would be safe for us to travel outside the woods."

"There," said Price, suddenly speaking in a normal tone of voice. "See?"

That surprised and shocked Coollege. "Be quiet, Tree," she said.

"Why? Rachel says we're all alone."

"If we believe her."

"I do," said Price. "Which way should we go?"

Monier was quiet for a moment and then pointed. "In that direction." Her hand was barely visible. Price had located her by the sound of her voice.

"I can't see anything over there," said Coollege.

"Rachel, you have the point. Walk very carefully, slowly. We're not interested in getting very far, just that we make some progress."

"Sure, Tree."

"She's got the point?" asked Coollege incredulously.

"She can see better than either of us." Price stood up and stepped closer. He reached out, feeling for Monier with his left hand. He touched the top of her head. "Let's go. I'll hold onto your shoulder. Jackknife, you need to hang on to me."


Monier was on her feet, facing away from them. "I just walk along?"

"Slowly," said Price. "Using a walking stick to feel your way along. We don't want to go strolling off a cliff."

"Walking stick?"

"Stay right here," said Price. He let go of her and worked his way around, feeling with his right hand. He found a sapling, crouched and cut it off near the ground with his knife. He stripped the tiny branches and the leaves from it quickly. He turned and stared into the darkness and no longer had any idea where Coolledge and Monier were. He couldn't see them though he knew that he was no more than a few feet from them.

"Somebody is going to have to say something."

"Right here, Tree," said Coollege. She sounded as if she was disgusted with him.

He turned his head toward the sound and walked into Monier. She stumbled back but Price caught her before she could fall. "Sorry."

Coollege reached out and touched him. "If we're through clowning around."

Price ignored her. He handed the walking stick to Monier. "Don't hurry. We have all the time we need." He felt Coollege's hand his shoulder. He glanced back but even though she was in arm's reach, she was little more than an indistinct charcoal smudge.

Monier probed the ground in front of her with the stick and found it to be solid. She lifted the stick, swung it right and left, searching for something she might walk into and then took a step. She began to work the stick rapidly. Right, left, probe to the front and then a couple of steps.

The system worked fine until she walked into a low hanging branch. She bumped her head and grunted in surprise and pain. She stopped walking.

"What?" asked Price.

"Bumped my head."

"Some psychic," said Coollege.

Price felt Monier stop. There was a tension in her shoulders that hadn't been there a moment ago. He could feel her turn her head.

"I've about had it with you," she said, her voice low and filled with fury. "You don't have a clue about what you're talking about."

"I know that you're not trained for this. We've got to carry you."

"Knock it off," said Price suddenly angry. Arguments on the ship were one thing but on the planet's surface there were something else. "There will be no more discussion of this. Period. We have got to work together or the mission is as good as finished."

"I wasn't searching for branches. I'm trying to find intelligence around here," said Monier anyway.

"Right," said Coollege.

Price let his hand drop from Monier's shoulder and turned to face Coolledge. He still could not see her, but could feel her hot breath on his face.

"You are supposed to be a professional. Act like it."

"Yes, sir!"

Price was going to say more but stopped. He knew that Coollege was just reacting. She'd figure it out in a moment. They had to work together regardless of the feelings. He turned and put his hand on Monier's shoulder. "Let's go."

They started off again, ducking under the branch that Monier had found. Now, she worked the stick quickly but held a hand up feeling for more low hanging branches. She stared into the dark, trying to see anything that might be in her path.

With her mind she reached out, beyond the woods and into the areas ahead of them, toward the major city. She knew there was something close. Small and furry with almost no intelligence. A small animal that operated on instinct rather than cunning. That was the thing. She could pick up impressions from the higher animals. Feelings of fear, caution, hunger and some emotions. Dogs were often happy to see a friendly face. Chimpanzees actually thought about problems and could work with other chimps to solve them. But here the animal reading was very low level and she could only pick up the single individual. She put that out of her mind.

As she felt around with her mind, she realized that the hand on her shoulder was reassuring. She didn't know if Price was trying to calm her or if he had the confidence in her that he seemed to be radiating. It didn't matter. She appreciated the feeling.

She slowed then and stopped. Price leaned close and whispered, "What?"

"We're about to exit this part of the forest."

"Wait one," said Price. He slipped to one knee and listened carefully.

Coollege, right behind him, turned so that she was facing back the way they had come. She was watching to make sure that no one came up on them, though it would be next to impossible for her see them in the darkness.

"I'm going to check this out," said Price now being quiet, whispering in Coollege's ear.

She didn't answer him. Suddenly they were a team again, in a hostile environment. Extra noise could lead the enemy right to them.

Price worked his way forward slowly, one hand out in front of him. He moved with a precision that was built on all his training. He noticed that the forest was becoming lighter in front of him. The trees weren't as tall and the foliage not as thick.

He reached the end of the forest and stopped. It looked as if a giant had taken a knife and sliced off the trees at that point. It was a straight line. Beyond it was an empty field. Price couldn't tell if was a cultivated field, a park, or something else. It was still too dark for him to see anything useful.

He stretched out on the ground and studied the area. He listened but there was still no sound, other than a quiet rustling caused by a light breeze. But still there were no insects, animals, birds, or even the noise of civilization. It was as if there was nothing but the vegetation.

Slipping to the rear, he stood and moved back into the forest, scanning right and left, but still unable to see anything other than the blackness of the forest. "Jackknife."


"Again," said Price.

"Right here."

Price moved toward the sound and saw the hunched shape of Coollege on the ground. She was moving her hand back and forth so that it would be easier for him to see her.

"Let's rest here for a few minutes. We've got a large field to cross before the sun comes up."
"How long until that?" asked Coollege.

Price pulled back the long sleeve of his camouflage jacket and realized that ship time, based on Earth time, had no relevance to the planet.

"Couple of hours, I think. I don't know."

"Shouldn't we eat something?" asked Monier.

"No yet," said Price. "Drink some water if you want but we won't eat until after we find a place to hole up for the day."

"Okay," she said, but she didn't understand it. There would be no one searching for them. She was sure of that.

No comments: