An intriguing short story from the award-winning Czech science fiction and fantasy writer Jaroslav Mostecký
The tree yelled in a premonition of death and the sky stormed.
Seal was startled and dropped the lamp on the ground. I swore and looked furiously at him. “What the hell are you doing?”
He turned pale in front of my eyes.
“It must have been totally rotten,” he said, terrified. “It cracked too early!”
He didn’t need to explain anything to me. I had already heard what could happen when Viola started playing.
He pushed me aside and rushed outside. It had always been much worse to stay in the gallery when the rotten air roots, reaching somewhere up to the height of several kilometers, crashed to the ground, than to be taken by surprise outside. I had not been on the job long enough to have experienced anything similar, but I had heard enough the very first evening at the cabin, after they had taken us down from orbit.
I chucked the laser saw on the ground and had just enough time to jump aside to avoid the thin ray tickling my ankles. I picked up the dropped lamp, quickly stamped on the switch of the laser saw and followed Seal to the exit. He was really good at running in the dark. By the time I had got out of the gallery he had already disappeared from sight.
The air was shimmering with heat and dying wood.
Somewhere high above me, out of sight, the broken runners of the secondary roots were crashing to the ground with an awful screaming sound.
The foreman ran past me, swearing, his eyes bulging with fear, by some wonder not popping right out of his head, even though he must have experienced something similar previously.
The trunk of the tree started to vibrate. The walls and ceiling of the gallery inside the tree started to shed sawdust while dust clouds of lichen spores were peeling off the soft tree bark.
When the guys talked about this the first night I came to Viola, I just waved my hand as if to brush away such nonsense. You know, they do it everywhere: Scare the newcomer, make fun of him…
“Your heart will drop into your trousers,” I recalled the words of the ever-frowning Duffy. At that time I only smiled uncertainly, in order to look neither like a greenhorn nor like a scaredy-pants.
Now, in the split of an instant, I realised that he had been right. In the blink of an eye I looked over the hillside sloping from the fringe of the forest down to the road. Several lumberers were running out of the gallery, covered in wooden dust, and the guys who sponge off the woodcutters and collect carmine shells, more priceless than the most expensive gems, from the water pockets behind the scales, were climbing down the tree trunk using ropes…
Everybody was in a hurry. The ones highest up must have known already that they wouldn’t manage in time, but in spite of that they kept trying. The 8-shaped clip of one of these guys had just broken and that guy had crashed down to the ground, not far from me. I didn’t hesitate any longer.
I slipped on the mash of sawdust and wood-eating worms, poked around with my hands on the ground and, bent forward, I rushed away. If I had had any time, I would have screamed in terror. I had once seen a photo of a man who hadn’t had time to hide and had stayed outside when the runners of the roots whipped the ground around the shelter…
I ran down the hillside, through the army kitchen, knocked over a pile of dishes and continued down the road. There were some other guys, but nobody had any time to take notice of anyone else. Except for when somebody was faster than the guy in front of him – then he had to knock him down so he could run even more quickly.
I was running towards the shelter, breathless, as if not touching the ground. It wasn’t much further…
I fixed my eyes on the concrete cube at the end of a roughly damaged clearing and silently guessed the distance. I knew that it was about half a kilometer, because the safety precautions had demanded exactly this distance. Somewhere inside me I was praying for each meter by which the builders might have shortened the safety zone.
All at once, the ear-piercing screeching sound changed its tone. I looked up without being aware that I was doing so. There was nothing in sight yet.
I dodged through the hollow stump of the tree we had chopped down the week before and a new grass field, passable only at places thanks to roots not yet burnt, opened up before me.
I started to lose my breath and to limp. At the worst possible moment, just as the ground started shaking under my feet, the wormy sawdust clouds were suffocating me, and I couldn’t shelter my face.
A man running behind me tripped, shouted something out and tried to catch me in his fall. Maybe he only wanted to get his balance back. More likely he didn’t want to die alone.
I relieved myself and transferred the balance into my toes. I had heard somewhere that this way one could run faster…
The storming noise changed into screaming, which was tearing the air in the same way as if someone were to tear a shirt into bandages. I could not see anything else in front of me except some gray blurred image. The shelter! I counted each step in my mind, silently and out of breath.
One, two, three, four…
How many yet? Sweat was running down my forehead and temples and began to burn my eyes.
The gray concrete area was growing bigger, approaching fast.
Eight, nine, seventy…
I had no time to realise if I had been crashed down by the pressure wave or if I had crashed against the shelter wall. I felt the rough surface of the shelter concrete armour shield under my palms just when I had curled down at the foot of the shelter.
I pulled my knees towards my stomach and buried my head into the felt grass. My ears might get torn apart, but I might not lose my eyes…
Half unconscious I felt somebody’s hands catch my collar and pull me somewhere to where the exit might have been.
We fell into the shelter at the very last moment. If we had been only a split second later, they wouldn’t have opened for us…
I crawled onto a bench and reached out in a direction from which I sensed the fragrance of brandy. I was blinking blindly into the dark and because nobody had passed me the brandy, I stretched my hand toward my rescuer. I could feel my heart high in my neck. My breathing was very heavy and I saw everything as a blur.
“Thanks,” I wheezed and wiped my tears and sweat with the back of my palm. Finally I was able to see him. I turned my brain on and looked for information in my memory. I must have met him before, I just couldn’t remember where.
He hadn’t belonged to the woodcutter group. There had been only twenty of us on this job and I had had time to get to know all of them in the last month I had been here. Not one of them would have climbed out to save me. Maybe it was one of the shell pickers or one of the supply people…
“Do I know you?” I asked in a low voice. The rumble, coming from outside, became unbearable even inside the shelter.
Perhaps he didn’t understand what I was saying.
“Do I know you?” I asked more loudly and tried to smile in self-denial, but I hadn’t enough strength to do even that.
Instead of answering he grinned and shook his head.
And then at that very moment it all broke out. The concrete cube of the shelter jumped up as if hit by a pressure wave and another more violent pressure wave ran over the shelter somewhere further away. The waves would wreak havoc at the next woodcutter’s place a few kilometers away but it wouldn’t kill any more.
Dust was getting inside the shelter through invisible holes, competing with the cigarette smoke for a place in the light of the fluorescent lamps.
I started to cough, quickly covering my nose with a corner of my shirt.
The guy that had saved me suddenly stood up without a word, touched his forehead with one finger as a greeting and then was the first one to go outside the shelter. I looked out, following him with my eyes, and then stepped back very quickly. It looked horrible out there.
I walked across the room towards Seal, pushed him aside a little bit and sat down next to him.
“You’ve been here much longer, Seal,” I said to him and, pulling a cigarette out of my pocket, offered it to him. “Who was the guy that brought me here?”
He hid the cigarette behind his ear and shrugged his shoulders: “Daniel. Everybody calls him that. He’s weird. Nobody knows why he’s here. He just wanders around. I have also noticed that some of the guys call him brother, maybe you will be one of them soon…“
“Oh, no,” Seal chuckled and moved the too long fringe from his forehead. “He’s got some plan, it is just that nobody knows what it is. The company has already checked him out, but they didn’t find anything. He is just a weird guy that’s got nothing better to do than to wander around Viola.”
“Why should I be one of his group?” I didn’t let him finish.
“Well, when something similar happened not long ago, before you came, he stayed seated near the exit and it didn’t cross his mind at all to bring in any of the guys that got shut out. He stayed here and sipped his coffee the same as everybody else…“
“Does he collect shells?”
“I’m telling you that he just wanders around,” Seal murmured irritated, stood up and opened wide the armour-plate shelter door.
Hard scales of bark and leaves rained outside. They were floating gracefully to the ground and cutting into the felt grass with their sharp edges.
“We had better wait,” my partner decided and looked over the sky cautiously.
“I cannot hear anything, but it might still crack up there.”
It seemed that everyone else agreed with him. It didn’t occur to anyone to stand up and get out of the shelter. I tried to find my rescuer somewhere in the clouds of dust and leaves, but he had already gone. He must have been as crazy as everybody had said.
Cans of beer were being passed around and a black guy at the other side of the concrete cell started to sing something about cotton in a soul rhythm.
Dark fell very quickly. There was still a lot of dust in the air, which had had no time to settle down, nevertheless it seemed to me that the spotted disc of Viola’s Gemini was more visible than usual. The name Viola had actually belonged to both planets, forever joined to each other, facing the same hemisphere. Until I saw this greatest wonder of the world with my own eyes when I first entered the unbelievably long orbit of Viola, I hadn’t been able to imagine it.
Huge tree trunks, tightened up like violin strings, had joined the two celestial bodies and had planted their roots in each other’s soil hundreds of thousands of years ago. Perhaps it used to be just one planet later torn up by rapid forces. In any case the planets looked magnificent and spectacular.
The forest of gigantic trees, however, no longer looked as it had been depicted in leaflets at travel agents.
In order to bear the incredible force by which the two worlds had been trying to tear apart from each other, the trees had grown hollow and elastic. It had therefore been the best material for the building of orbital base camps and connecting parts of cargo ships. And to work here had been the best job possible. Viola had been slowly giving in to axes and saws…
I winked in a friendly manner at Duffy, who was offering me a sip of strawberry juice, and stepped out into the evening silence.
The night smelled of freshly cut wood and flashes of evening fires could be seen through the forest barrier.
I shuffled in place hesitantly and finally set out for the lights. There was no way I could fall asleep on my bunk bed anyway until the card players, hitting the table hard with their cards every evening just a few meters from my bed, went to sleep first…
“May I take a seat?”
Two of the shell pickers looked me over and silently moved aside to make a place for me.
“You are new here, aren’t you?” somebody whom I couldn’t see because of the fire shouted at me.
I nodded. “Do you mind?”
“No, of course not. It is just that it is unusual for one of the woodcutters to come into our camp.”
“Well, I don’t really know,” I murmured truthfully and fidgeted nervously, “If you mind me staying here just tell me and I will go…“
“And where to?” someone asked maliciously. “It must have been bloody difficult to get here through the collapsed roots. There are as many holes in them as in the Gruyere cheese and they are incredibly old. This tree will uproot itself in about a thousand years anyhow…” He chuckled breathlessly, pulling out a burning stick out of the fire and lighting his cigarette.
The hushed conversation around the fire had been dying out. Everybody seemed to be interested in my answer.
“I was able to climb in here so I can climb back out.“
“The ghosts will get you…” He said it so seriously that somehow I was not able to respond with a wisecrack.
“Well, if this is a joke, never mind,” I said uncertainly. “If not, then I have to confess that it’s news to me.”
The guy across from me went around the cracking flames and sat down next to me. As soon as I could recognise him against the flashing flames I realised that he wasn’t joking at all. I jumped up before he had time to sit down and stretched my hand toward him.
“I have asked your name before,” I asked formally. “Thank you, Daniel. Without you, I would have stayed out there…“
He brushed my thanks aside with a wave of his hand and pushed the shell picker further away. “I bet that you have also been asking what I’m doing here, haven’t you?”
I nodded. We both lowered our voices and the guys sitting around the fire slowly started to return to their previous topics of conversation.
He looked twenty years older than I did, so I didn’t take notice of his slightly belittling tone.
“Whatever they told you was nonsense,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I would not like you to think that I am some kind of a noble-minded guy. I had been planning to meet you. I just took the opportunity to do it earlier than I had originally planned…” He paused for a while and turned his eyes to the sky where the huge disc of Viola’s Gemini covered two thirds of the night sky. The gigantic trees, their leaves rising into the sky just a few steps behind us, had grown up to its surface, hidden among the rocks in the muddy valleys.
My head was spinning with dizziness and I could feel my stomach crawling up into my neck. Though I was sitting on a low wooden bench, my head felt giddy anyway. If Daniel hadn’t given me his hand I would have fallen down on the ground next to the fire.
“You are a lumberer,” my new friend whispered after a while and then he turned his voice down a bit more. “I would like to ask you a favour. Maybe I will save your life again…”
I nodded slightly. “What is it?”
He stood up and indicated to me that I should do the same. Without a word, he emerged from the light of the flashing flames of the fire and waited for me to follow him.
Then he turned his back to the shell pickers and began to climb up the hillside to the surrounding barrier of Viola’s forest.
The forest rose before us like the wall of some gigantic fortress. The shouting of the shell pickers gave way to the night noise of the forest. Suddenly we were in the middle of the dark night, occasionally broken by the green light of Gemini. It felt like being there for the first time even though I already knew every root and stone in there. However, I had never been so close to it in the dark.
The silent twittering of lizards was mixing with crowing, which I had never heard before, and long stalk leaves, growing directly from the trunk, were rustling against each other every time the far away air roots clapped.
If I had got lost here alone, I would not have been brave enough to turn my back to this unknown world which I was helping to kill. I would have been backing slowly down and that evening I would not have left the fire for a moment.
Everything looked completely different than it had in the daylight.
The piles of sawdust brought out of the galleries, the tool shelters, and even the forest…
Actually it wasn’t really a forest. Hundreds of trees squashed together like beans in a can, where there was a mass of rotten leaves, lizard bones and dead beetles instead of the tomato sauce…
Very rarely you could find a space among the trees while mining, and that was filled up with the same rotting and deathly smelling soil as in the rest of the forest. Most of the time the tree trunks created a compact wall of scaled bark that split into individual trees only at the height of few kilometers.
Daniel led me with certainty. We passed a few galleries, gaping out of the forest, and after a while of tripping over stones and roots, we stopped in front of my gallery.
“What are we doing here?” I shook my head.
“I have already been here today,” he answered, the point he was trying to make not being obvious, “I wanted to have a proper look around here. It seems that tomorrow you should start on the other side.”
I nodded. “It is my first tree where I work as a lumberer completely alone. I don’t know it for sure yet, but probably yes.”
He pointed blindly somewhere into the dark to where the crashed secondary roots were slightly visible. “You left your saw in the gallery when it started falling down,” he said vaguely.
“I always leave it there,” I frowned. “Partly I don’t want to be bothered by carrying it with me and anyway even if someone took it, how far could he run with it?”
“I only wanted to make sure that you haven’t returned there to pick it up,” he murmured silently and peeped inside.
“So you only wanted to borrow my saw, is that it?”
In reply, he merely gestured indefinitely with his hand. He went inside the gallery and only then, when he was inside, did he turn on the lamp he carried on his belt. He covered the lamp with his palm, allowing only a tiny ray of light into the passage.
“It doesn’t look right, does it?” I remarked.
He didn’t respond to my remark. He vanished behind the long curve of the gallery, leading right through the tree. The whole gallery had been completely cleared. It consisted of two intersecting passages and also another one circling around the whole tree. The tree was propped up by only four wooden blocks, which would finally be blown up by explosives at the very same moment as at the other end of the tree, which had planted its roots in the muddy valleys of Viola’s Gemini.
To do it any other way would cause the whole tree to come crashing onto one of the planets. The connection with the ground had to be cut off on both globes at the same time. The tightened wooden spring of Viola would at this moment contract and, for a few minutes, until gravity got hold of it, would float motionlessly in the vacuum. Then the orbital conveyors would drag it to the parking runway for further proceedings…
Daniel disappeared into the passage together with his flashlight and I suddenly found myself in absolute darkness. I looked out of the tree and followed him hesitantly. It was impossible to get lost in the gallery even if you were totally blind.
In the middle, where the trunk of the tree was hollow and bodies of worms together with slices of semi-transparent moss filled up the cavity to a height of several kilometers, I pulled the hood of my shirt over my head and, taking a deep breath, I ran quickly through the falling rubbish.
I just caught up with him at the opposite wall. My laser saw lay on the side. Daniel was walking around the circular gallery and kept hitting the outside wall with a piece of metal.
“What’s up?” I asked, my eyes hardening a bit. There was something going on which I didn’t seem to understand.
He took no notice of me. He knelt down and started to crawl through the whole area again. Only the bark of the tree, covered with sleazy bast, stood in the way of cutting through. The bark used to be cut through only rarely. Most of the time the tree trunk used to just slip out of the scaly beds of bark as if oiled after the four wooden blocks had been blown up.
He crawled to the end and rolled onto his back. He must have mashed the sawdust and worms into a jam doing that, however, he didn’t seem to mind this at all.
“Come here,” he bawled at me, as if I had just come in. “Listen to this!” He moved aside and knocked on the bed of one of the scales.
Something rattled on the other side.
“Echo?” I asked stupidly.
He shook his head in silence. “It’s a ghost,” he murmured after a while and against his will, his voice jumped nervously. “They are over there on the other side. People talk about them even though nobody has seen them yet. Why do you think that none of the old workers in your woodcutting group wants to be a lumberer even if it is the best paid job you can come across?”
I didn’t want to believe what he was suggesting. “It is a drudgery,” I tried to disagree with him.
He patted my back and shook his head as if having no doubt about it. “When you came here to be a lumberer,” he said silently with his ear still at the sleazy inside wall of the bark, “did you meet the guy that had been here before you?”
I shook my head.
“Not even in orbit? Quarantine lasts a month. If he was still alive, he must have been there at the time you came here…” He smiled mysteriously and waved his hand to show me that there was no need whatsoever to respond to this comment.
A shiver ran down my spine and I had to force myself not to start looking around me.
Dan’s torch started to draw light lines on the walls of the gallery, but it soon stopped and became still again.
I looked at him uncertainly and as quietly as possible knelt down again to the sleazy bast wall. I still could hear it.
“What’s that in reality?”
“Ghosts,” he repeated again, this time less seriously.
“What the hell do you mean by ghosts?”
The bare bark had bulged inside and light could be seen in the holes in the scaly beds. It was dark yellow, like a phosphorescent pus.
I swallowed heavily, stepped back a little and looked sharply at Daniel: “Do they eat people?”
He seemed to be calm but I could see that his nerves were tightened to the point of bursting. “Shut up,” he bellowed at me and withdrew from the wall. He stopped just beside me.
The bark bulged back and the yellowish light disappeared.
“Can you answer me?” I burst out and thrashed my fist against the gallery wall.
He turned violently towards me. “It has happened a few times before that lumberers have disappeared. The bark was cut by a saw so they must have done it themselves… Maybe they saw what we have just seen and were curious…”
“I don’t believe it,” I shook my head in disbelief. “I would never try such a thing.”
“You wouldn’t, but somebody else might…”
“Nobody,” I barked back at him in sudden anger.
“It is also possible that they had cut the bark deeper then they had intended to and “it” just crawled out at them…”
“Oh Christ, what could crawl out at them?” I wrung my hands theatrically while watching the place that had just bulged out a few minutes ago. “Except for beetles there are only worms and lizards here…”
I stopped abruptly and looked at Daniel. “After the tree is taken away, anyone can see what is hidden behind it. There is no maze of passages, perhaps there might be small squares filled up with leaves. Anyway, when they moved the rubbish they would have found the lumberers if there had been any…” I spat confidently onto the ground and tried to look as if I was sure of what I was saying. “More probably there have been some arguments which ended with knives. So you will find them somewhere under one of the heaps of sawdust!”
He picked my saw up from the ground and passed it to me. “Have you ever heard about what you can find in the – what do you call them – squares?”
“Yes, but I didn’t believe it,” I nodded in approval. “They say that sometimes some of the conveyor workers get stuck among the trunks. Of course, they are not wandering around there now, they fall either here or on Gemini.” I shook my head and fastened the three straps holding the saw to my back and shoulders. “They must have ended up there on one of the small squares together with their scooters. I have heard that occasionally a skeleton has been found…“
Daniel nodded. “At least the lizards get fed,” he remarked cynically.
“However, it has also happened that a lumberer disappeared and then when the space behind the trunk was cleared no body was found…”
“Nothing at all,” Daniel couldn’t be silenced. “The scent trail led inside and then disappeared. Those guys never came back…“
The ray of light bit into the wood and, after a while, carved out a fiftieth step.
We were standing in the hollow part of the trunk just above the rotting mass of dead leaves, beetles and lizards, and I was cutting out stairs leading upwards round the trunk according to Daniel’s instructions.
The fool had wanted to go outside the tree, but he hadn’t had the courage to do it at the bottom where the heaps of rotting leaves could have buried us and also where there had been a strange light just a moment ago.
Most of the time the mass among the trees was up to twenty meters high so it looked like we would have enough work to keep us busy until the following morning. Even though I had felt obliged to him, one thing I knew for sure. I would cut through the bark as soon as we got to the top and that would be the end of it for me. Not a step further…
“How much further?”
We were covered in sweat. The steeply twisting stairs were becoming more and more dangerous with each newly cut out step. The half-loose tree was shaking in the storm that was going on in the upper atmospheric layers and the rain of worms falling into our shirts was getting thicker with each new shaking up of the wooden world.
Daniel had moved aside the cuttings and stood up carefully. He touched the rim of a carnivorous mushroom growing around the whole cavity and shivered in disgust.
“I hope that this only eats worms, it licked my hand!”
“It only spat out its excrement!” I reassured him. “How much further?”
“Two or three steps further and then we’ll give it a try,” he said, catching his breath. After all, he was older than I was. If he had had to climb up there with the saw on his back, he would have had a heart attack by now.
I nodded approvingly and moved the laser ray a little bit higher. I had had enough of this already. A new day had probably already started outside and I had a whole new shift of drudgery in front of me. As a lumberer, it was not my duty to plant the explosives, but it was beneath the pyrotechnics specialists to carry the stuff from the storage way up here by themselves, they considered themselves too high up on the totem pole for that.
I had finished the last step without a word and started to dig into the gallery passage in a horizontal direction that would lead into the layer where we had seen the yellowish light earlier this evening.
Normally it would take two or three shifts to do this but now there was nobody around who would try to increase my daily quota. Also I didn’t have to keep the prescribed height and width of the gallery passage. We were crawling on our knees to the bark and just about when I was getting hungry, the structure of the wood changed and the roots of scaly beds appeared.
I shortened the laser ray and carefully continued crawling further into the passage. Daniel hustled behind me, throwing back the wooden cuttings with his hand. The progress of our crawling was getting slower and slower. The exhaled air had insufficient time to get ventilated in the narrow passage and we had to stop our work every half an hour and crawl backward to the cut out stairs. I had also been trying to be as careful as possible. I didn’t want to cut through the bark before I’d let Daniel ahead of me. If there was something in there… well, it had been his idea all along.
It hadn’t taken long. The laser ray had penetrated the few-decimeters-thick layer of scaly beds and a loud hissing sound of water came out from pockets behind the beds. The water evaporated immediately and the boiled shells opened to be eaten by the lizards.
“Finished,” I turned to face Daniel and lay down on my back so I could widen the gallery passage. A few more times the hissing sound of the water could be heard, but I had been careful to make only narrow, small holes and had not cut the bark through yet.
Finally I had finished and could allow Daniel to crawl over me to get ahead. I could see the vein on his neck pulsating vividly and his tightened face showed his tension. He was holding a gun in his hand, which I had not seen before on him, and he was literally hypnotising the wall in front of him.
“Go on, buddy!” He nodded his head and aimed the gun directly at the place where I had gone down with the laser ray. As if he was expecting that something on the other side had been waiting for him. Something you couldn’t just shoot with an ordinary blaster that could be bought in any shop, especially in view of the fact that guns were illegal on Viola anyway. The butt of the gun, which he propped against his shoulder, had the security label of the Special Forces on it. These guns worked only when they identified the odour pattern of their owners. So it simply meant that they were not worth stealing. It also meant that the gun most probably belonged to Daniel. And that he wasn’t just some kind of a strange guy wandering around Viola with nothing to do… Everywhere guys from the Special Forces had shown up, there had always been something fishy about it.
I squeezed back and focused the laser ray from behind Daniel’s shoulder onto the thin wall in front of us.
The wall had nearly torn itself up of its own volition. The rotten smell of the leaves outside had blown in together with the gray light of the phosphorescent mould covering the piles of dirt just about a meter under the gallery opening.
“We’ve just about got it right,” Daniel laughed and lowered the gun barrel. He pulled his hand out, holding the lamp and waving it over his head. “It doesn’t look so scary.”
He looked around once more, carefully holding the light to see all sides and then, with the gun in one hand and the lamp in the other, he jumped down. The pillows of rotten mush opened for a while and if Daniel hadn’t jumped aside immediately, he would have got caught in the mush up to his waist.
The light emanating from the mould was quenched under his feet as he was walking on it and the surface swung lightly with each of his further steps as if he had been walking on a moorland. “Are you going to follow me?”
I shook my head: “No way! I like myself too much.”
“There’s nothing in here,” he continued to tempt me. “I thought that something was going to be here, but there’s nothing…“
“So you can see up to the end, ha?” I sneered at him. I leaned out of the opening and looked up to see how the sky looked. It had been dark even though outside a new day must have been beginning. The sky was missing here. The dome of the trunks crossing over each other had been arched at an immense height above the little valley and had been hidden in the dark.
Something occurred to me: “Daniel?”
“Call me buddy,” he answered without turning his face back to me. “What’s up?”
“Come back!” I wanted to shout at him, but I was scared that I would provoke him to attack.
The tension had grown up like a fog crawling in torn-up pieces down the trunks.
He stiffened and then slowly he began to turn. “What’s that?” he asked just as quietly.
“Nothing yet, but it must be around here. When we were at the bottom of the tree, it nearly burst through the bark, didn’t it?!“
I could see that he had relaxed a bit. “Most probably it was some kind of gas. If you threw a few embers in here, the whole forest would explode very quickly!”
He receded further and further with every step. Now I could see him only as a dark spot against the white phosphorescent background.
I couldn’t decide what to do. Should I stay or should I go? The third possibility, that of following Daniel, was one I was not even willing to think about.
I felt suddenly more and more tired. I hadn’t slept all night and, what’s more, we were going to have to get rid of the air root that had crashed down the day before. There seemed to be no way to avoid this.
Suddenly I realised that I hadn’t asked Daniel how long he was going to stay in there. The time was passing incredibly slowly and the silver white duvet of the mould one meter under me was imperceptibly waving as if to threaten me.
I forced myself to sit at the opening of the gallery a little bit longer, but finally my patience ran out and I leaned out of the opening as far as I could and yelled: “Hey!”
It took incredibly long for the echo to die down and the silence spread around me with an air of finality. Now I felt as though I should jump down there to follow him, but I knew for sure and for certain that I wouldn’t.
Something had just moved before me. No way it had occurred to me that it might have been Daniel. It seemed to be too small for him.
I recognised him only after he shouted at me. He was limping towards me with his leg strangely twisted behind him.
I stretched the pieces of bark apart and looked outside. “Are you all right?”
“Throw me the rope and help me!” He fell on his side and burnt the tree trunks above him with the blaster ray.
“I wouldn’t go down there for anything in the world!” I barked at him. “And I’d have to fetch the rope first… What do you need it for?”
I continued to watch over the dimly lit small plateau among the trees, looking for something he might have been running from.
“So you could pull me up. I’m exhausted.” His voice was trembling and occasionally he hit the mould in front of him with an angry yell.
“If I come down there and get you, will you guarantee me that nothing is going to happen to me?”
“Sure, buddy,” he forced himself to sound relaxed. “Nothing can happen to you down here, but if I lose…” He exhaled deeply and continued, his voice wheezing. “If I lose consciousness, don’t go any further. Just come right up to where I am and don’t go a step further. It smells really rotten over there…“
He fell face down into the dirt and when he finally lifted his head up, some pieces of mould were stuck under his eyes and he looked terribly scary.
I jumped down there, overcoming my own will, and, immediately upon landing, rolled aside. The biological pillow under me was silently swishing, transparent moths were running among the tiny soft threads of the moulds and somewhere from the right a dying lizard’s twittering could be heard.
My shirt was stuck to my back. I had taken the laser saw off just before I jumped down and I was beginning to be sorry that I had. I was crawling into that darkness with no weapon at all and even though I had known that nothing longer than lizards of thirty centimeters in length lives on Viola, I was more scared than I had ever been before.
He was laying only about fifty steps in front of me. I was stopping every few paces and looking around. “Daniel?”
He wasn’t answering anymore. He looked like a pile of dust and ashes, which could be blown by the wind all around the place in a moment.
The closer I was coming to the middle of the plateau, the flabbier the ground under my feet became. Presumably when it was raining the water from the pockets behind, the scales overflowed and after that it got sacked into the rotting ground of mush. The stuff that had been spread between Daniel and me reminded me of a moorland. I had thrown a rotten stick onto the spongy gelatin-like surface and watched it sink into the depth of the mush with a shiver running down my spine.
I returned to the tree barrier and continued to walk slowly along. I could already see Daniel just a few steps in front of me. I looked once more over the whole place and bent over him.
His fingers felt the ground around him and grabbed my wrist. Too strongly to miss. I tried to get out of his grasp but it was impossible.
“I’ll pull you over, but you have to let go…”
“It’s too late,” he whispered and his clenched fingers let me go.
“I’ll carry you, buddy,” I called him by the name he had liked to use and grasped him under his shoulders. “You just have to try a little bit harder!”
He was losing consciousness and only by using his strong will could he keep his eyes open.
“What happened up there, Daniel?” I knew that talking would only make him weaker, but I couldn’t keep myself from going on asking him. Also he could die at any moment now and it would be really silly if he took what he had seen with him…
I was trying to pull him back to the opening of the gallery, but I couldn’t brace my feet against the too flabby ground. I was losing balance all the time and kept sinking under. The soil was opening up under my feet and there was a real danger that the ground would swallow us and wouldn’t let us go.
I had put him onto the ground, turned him onto his back and then I tried to grasp him underneath his body so that I could carry him in my arms.
Maybe I would have managed this after all. I was just beginning to rise when, suddenly, I heard a completely new sound not similar to any one I’d heard up till then.
I froze. At first, for a split second, I couldn’t even turn back to see what it was. Anyway, judging by the noise, it was moving slowly.
“What happened up there, Daniel?” I yelled at him, sinking into the mire up to my knees while trying to run with him in my arms.
“They’ve killed me,” he answered in a whisper. “It was my fault. It’s just that you mustn’t scare them, buddy…” Some foam appeared at the corner of his mouth. I wanted to wipe it off with my hand, but he was quicker.
The terrifying screeching behind me was growing stronger and louder.
With my last ounce of strength I freed my right leg from the captivity of the rotten leaves. I transferred the weight of my body onto one of my knees and tried to free the other leg as well. I dropped Daniel to the ground, having lost my balance again, and fell down next to him with my face touching the ground.
“The… lumberers have been disappearing, because they have never prepared them for their arrival. You mustn’t take them by surprise, then they will let you kill them…”
He was trying to gather his strength. With clenched teeth he raised up his dangling right hand and put it into his pocket. “I’ve found something,” he said silently.
I gulped in shock when his palm opened and there was a shining thing, which would get me more money then I would earn here in two years… I instantly forgot about everything else around me.
The soil moved under my feet, abruptly awakening me from my dreaming.
I turned around slowly and indecisively and all at once my throat went dry.
It was emerging behind me from the big pile of the half liquid mass that was everywhere. Dead button-like bodies of beetles and rotten triangular leaves were falling down its surface, bursting and falling to pieces in front of my eyes. It was rising from the bottom. I couldn’t recognise any shape whatsoever. It was as if it wanted to brush itself off first.
The echo must have sent my yelling back at least fifty times. I didn’t know what I was doing. I forgot all about Daniel and started to run forward as quickly as I could. I pulled my feet out of mounds of leaves and mould and started to flee forward on all fours. Only after several steps was I able to stop and look back over my shoulder.
It was still growing. At that moment it must have already been bigger than me. The only thing I could feel was utter terror…
I reached the tree’s black opening, about one meter high, the same one through which we had come out here, exhausted and completely out of breath. It had seemed unreachable. I swung up into the opening in just one leap and pulled the handles of the saw onto my back in one well-practised swift movement.
I didn’t want to run any further. This place was easy to defend and, moreover, if that thing, whatever it was, were to come after me from the darkness, it could follow me into the gallery and get me from behind.
I caught a mere flash of a glimpse of it again. It was growing more rapidly now. It had half-swallowed Daniel’s body already when, suddenly, a loud slurp echoed through the gallery and the thing that had scared me so much disappeared. The bubble rising from the bottom had burst and the rotten mush splashed around the tree trunks and Daniel had sunk into the crater, which was created only a few moments after the bubble had burst.
There was nothing I could have done. I withdrew to the stairs we had created with Daniel and slowly continued descending.
The new day outside had already begun. The bonfires of the shell pickers had burnt out and dishes were clattering in the field kitchen. I was thinking that I should inform someone about what had happened, but then I remembered what wise ancestors used to say.
Silence is golden.
“Something’s wrong with you, Sonny,” Duffy remarked and spat through the open window. He had to shout so I could understand him. The clearing machines had been running since the morning. They had been cleaning up the plain where Daniel had vanished.
I shivered every time I heard shouting or yelling from outside with a weird feeling in my stomach. So far it hadn’t seemed to be strange to anyone that Daniel hadn’t showed up yet. There were five or six woodcutting places on Viola and Daniel used to wander among them like a puppet on a rubber string. Anyway, if they had found him in any of these places, every one of the shell pickers sitting around the fire would remember the person he had left with the previous night.
He could have reached the small valley only through the tree and nobody but me had anything to do in the gallery.
It would look like murder and I felt very nervous about it.
“What do you mean? I’m just fine!” I snapped at Duffy and started to shuffle the cards. Solitaire playing was a real bore, but it was the best way to get rid of other people’s attention.
“If you are religious and need some consolation, there’s one pastor at South gallery who never finished his theological studies. He preaches every day. He will do anything to get out of work.”
“I don’t believe in God, man, and I’m not in the mood, okay?”
Duffy continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “I also felt like you do now some time ago…“
“Really?” I made a bored face, rolling my eyes and making sure he saw it. “Haven’t you ever wanted others to just bug off?”
He was as unrelenting as a bur. He opened the door and bowed Seal, who was staggering around with maybe the fifteenth can of beer, out the door. Then he looked out of the window to make sure nobody was listening and walked towards me between the bunk beds.
“I once worked at the gallery near the pole. It is not as cold as you would imagine, but the tree’s bark is much thicker…”
“There aren’t any woodcutters at the pole,” I objected and removed the aces from the pack of cards. I lined up the first row and looked thoughtfully at Duffy’s wrinkled face. Every now and then he licked his upper lip as if he didn’t known how to start. He wanted to tell me something really badly.
“Why did you throw Seal out?” I asked and put the last card next to the others. I turned a ten of clubs over in place of a red joker and placed it face up.
He let my question pass without an answer. “It was twenty of us there, then, the same as here,” he said and his hand sunk into his pocket to get a bite of a snuff tobacco.
“The shell pickers were crazy to get into our camp. They even wanted to help us with the mining for free just to get a roof over their heads. Nobody knew then if it was safe or not to stay around the fire overnight…” He went on to expatiate. I listened without saying a word and kept turning over the cards. “Those days it was different than it is now, Sonny. The water pockets there were twice as big as the ones you know here. They got covered in ice overnight, but the shells there compared to those you find here were as emeralds are to stones. You could get very rich within six months….” He stopped talking for a moment and watched me, searching for I didn’t know what. “I guess you know what I’m talking about as far as big shells are concerned…”
I jerked and put the unturned card back in its place.
“What do you mean, Duffy?”
“Exactly what I said,” he barked, turning me toward him so he could look directly into my eyes. “I came to the fire immediately after you did that night, Son. I saw you leaving with that crazy guy Daniel for the woods. I also saw you coming back. Alone…” He let me loose and sat on the table. The cards fell to the floor.
Somebody outside had just shouted something incomprehensible. Maybe they had already found him.
“I saw nothing!”
“Don’t be funny,” he rebuked me, his voice rising. “I have known Daniel long enough to know exactly what he’d want from you. Nothing else has been of interest to him over the years than to get to the other side of the tree before it gets cut down. He succeeded twice before but he probably didn’t find what he was looking for. Until now…?” He finished with a question.
“How am I supposed to know, for Christ’s sake?” I exclaimed, throwing wide my arms then gathering the cards into a pile.
“I know he’s dead, you don’t have to explain anything to me,” he waved his hand disgustedly. “How did it happen?”
“He sank into that awful rotting mush…”
He looked disappointed. “He sank?” he repeated with a sour face. “He wasn’t stupid enough to step somewhere he shouldn’t have… You didn’t help him a little bit, did you?”
I was too tired to get angry at his remark. “A bubble burst behind him and sucked him into the depth…”
“Did you go with him?”
“No, I stayed in the gallery…”
“How far from the tree did he get?”
“He was just on his way back to the gallery,” I said quietly. “I was just going to…“
Duffy jerked and jumped off the table: “He was returning? What did he find?”
“How would I know? He was crawling on all fours and his legs hampered him more than anything else…”
“He found it,” Daniel exhaled heavily, his eyes alight. “Did he say anything?”
I shook my head. “He had no time. I was going to help him but then it happened.”
“Did you check his pockets?”
I felt like I was being investigated. “Why?”
“He must have had a real fortune on him, you fool!” Duffy exclaimed. “One the likes of which you had never seen before…”
Only then I did remember the big shell Daniel had shown to me. I put on an amazed face and asked Duffy: “What are you talking about?”
He grew nervous and so started waving his hand as usual. “Over in the North, it was there as well. Also the trees grew less closely together. So it was much easier to get into the places among them. Sometimes, when one of our number had died, we would then find a big shell in his pocket…”
“Yes, you said that already…”
“Stop interrupting me! The shell was much bigger than the ones you could find in the water pockets and even those seemed incredibly large to us. One day something happened and everyone there died. I’m the only one who survived, because at that time I was lying in the hospital. However, I can imagine quite well what happened there that day. The only one who was still alive when we were found was a guy called Solomon. He died in the hospital two days later in the arms of his beloved brother. I’m sure he told him everything he knew about it. And guess who was his buddy?”
I trembled, a frozen shiver creeping down my spine and suddenly realised why Daniel liked it so much when somebody called him buddy.
“Now he keeps looking for it,” Duffy continued talking. “I mean, he was looking for it. I don’t know whether he was seeking revenge or fortune. Nobody knows…“
“He belonged to the Special Forces,” I whispered so nobody who might have been standing under the window could hear us. “He had their equipment with him…“
Duffy’s features tightened and he nodded. “The third possibility,” he admitted calmly. “He was assigned to this task…”
Suddenly a deep silence spread between us. Duffy stretched out his body and headed towards the door.
“Will you explain to me what’s going on?”
He grinned and shook his head vehemently. “You’ve already heard enough. The less you know about it, the better. At least you won’t be tempted to do anything stupid… and as far as Daniel is concerned, you don’t have to worry. If he’s found, nobody will investigate it and I am not going to tell anyone a word.”
I watched him intensely for a while and tried to think. For sure he knew more than the directors in the highest places in the company. Duffy had been toiling away here for more than twenty years and quite certainly he had enough money to allow himself to spend the rest of his life between his swimming pool and bed. He could have left a long time ago. I remembered the shining red shell I saw in Daniel’s hand for a moment. That might be the reason Duffy was still here…
Maybe he’s right. If he had told anyone, there would have been more shell pickers than lumberers and instead of lumber being harvested, other galleries would have been dug out further and further into the forest…
I shook my head and laughed soundlessly. It wouldn’t be like him to give a hoot for any of this, it must have been something else that had fascinated him…
It didn’t strike me until dinnertime. I nearly jumped up from my plate. I smiled apologetically and gave my bread to Seal as I had knocked his piece of bread out of his hand in my overexcitement. After I had finished the disgusting grub made of frozen potatoes and cauliflower, I turned to the foreman with an unopened can of beer from my rations.
He was bold and even though he was about forty, he looked twice his age. He was just licking the oil off his fingers, because he had roasted a lizard’s tail to be eaten with that vegetable bomb and was searching around for something to drink. Lizard meat was terribly salty and he had finished and thrown away his two cans of beer long before.
“You want one, foreman?” I asked him and offered him my beer. He looked at me with a look that was far from being grateful. He nodded, had a sip and waited to find out what it was that I wanted.
“Don’t look at me as if I wanted to eat you,” I snarled. “I just want to ask you something…” I looked around the table. Duffy had already gone. “I’ve signed a two-year contract. If I prolong it, will I get any cash in advance?”
“You are in debt, are you?”
I nodded uncertainly.
“No, you won’t get a peanut, son,” he said and finished off the beer. “These are the last two years on Viola. Then it will be offered for sale under the condition that the rest of the trees must not be touched anymore. You know, the eco-men have their hands in everything these days… Two years, men,” he said much louder so the others could hear him. “Two more years and we’re on the move.”
I nodded to show that I had understood. Now I understood Duffy as well. He was going to buy the place and then he would search for the shells. No other picker would then remain here without his permission.
“The gold mine,” I whispered voicelessly and looked up to the sky.
The stars were just beginning to appear. They seemed to shimmer with a red glow.
I climbed to the window to let a tiny ray of light into the room that was the foreman’s office. There was chaos everywhere; “mess” would be too weak of a word for the state of that room. I made sure not to knock anything over and jumped silently through the window to get inside the room.
Naked bums were shining from all walls and the big bosoms of dozens of women on the walls made me think of pink waves. I’m sure that he would have loved to stick such pictures to the floor as well had he not been afraid they would get too damaged that way.
I slid past the column drill samples piled in the corner, cautiously illuminating the way under my feet with the flashlight with each and every step I took. Every now and then an old bone thrown away from an eaten lizard tail would crack underneath.
The sawdust-covered wooden floor screeched at the most unexpected moments. I got the impression that somebody else was walking in that room besides me, so I stopped at the door and listened intensively for a while. After dinner I had given a bottle of leaf spirit to the foreman in order to assure that he would sleep soundly until the following morning.
I stepped over the remains of an abandoned lunch and over three cups of partially drunk coffee and sat down at the monitor.
I had spent nearly ten minutes going through porno-game offers before I found what I was looking for.
All that concerned Viola and its Gemini.
I was scanning through the data with no intention of stopping until I found, on the annual list of woodcutting places, the one Duffy had been talking about. Just when I had found it, a slantwise yellow line appeared on the monitor with the word “Quarantine” in the left upper corner of the monitor. The right bottom corner was asking for the appropriate name and password.
There was no point in going on trying.
I had not finished yet. I had been dreaming for two nights in a row about the stuff Daniel had told me and now I had the chance to check it out. I went back into the main menu and got out a list of men that had worked at our place as lumberers.
The names didn’t seem familiar to me… Poul Zaharias, Martin Schwub, Thomas Weinlich, John Hampel… The last three had a little cross at their names and a note saying they had come to our gallery from the North-east post. I had been there before. We used to go there for our explosive supplies.
It was a woodcutting camp at the other side of the forest. It had been in operation for a long time without any limits having been placed on the harvesting of wood. There was no reason why the three guys should have been transferred to our place.
Then I suddenly realised what the reason was. People used to be transferred as a punishment. These three were lumberers who had again been close to the North Pole. The North-east and Duffy’s former work place were at the same latitude. What if the three had been on to something and had started to mine the galleries accordingly? I returned my attention to the monitor. Next to the cross there was a mark that had not appeared by any other name than those of these three. The legend to this list was at the end of the file…
The floor crackled at the same time as a frozen shiver raced down my spine. The mark was explained as “missing”. These were the three Daniel had been talking about.
I felt that something puzzling was drawing me further and further into the mysteries of an almost forgotten history. All three had been transferred here after Duffy had already been here for quite a while. He was still alive and these guys were gone, all three of them. I had made up my mind.
If I was mistaken, the worst that could happen to me was that the foreman would slap my face and reduce my salary for the days I was going to be missing and wandering elsewhere. If not and everything was exactly as I thought, it was then it would be much safer for me to get as far away from Duffy as possible…
I didn’t feel like going back to the dormitory. I could end up like those three as soon as this very evening. Under a big pile of wood dust…
I found the foreman’s bag in the dark and stuffed it with a sleeping bag and some tins of food. I tightened the belts and, with the help of the climbing rope which had been left here by a shell picker who had fallen down here somewhere and died, I lowered the bag to the ground as silently as I could, then jumped out of the window, pulling the rope down as well. A saw would be very convenient for my journey as well, but I didn’t believe I would be able to carry it for longer than an hour. An ordinary axe and knife would have to suffice as tools.
When I had finally got out of the maze of roots and ash, the sun behind the gigantic trees was beginning to rise for a new day. The journey awaiting me would be a very long one. The workplace North-east, as its name indicated, was in the north. The secret place that Duffy had let slip out of his mouth should be somewhere at the other side of the forest. On the other hemisphere, in fact. I would have to walk around the northernmost extremities of the forest and, once having arrived at my destination, would search for the ruins of Duffy’s former work place.
Contentedly scratching my two-month’s worth of beard growth, which had changed my face to the point of making it unrecognisable, I crawled out of my sleeping bag. By the time I had called it a night the previous evening, it had already been so dark that I had barely been able to see ten steps in front of me. Now it was different.
Short, frost-coated grassy hairs glistened and frozen puddles sparkled occasionally in the sun. A freezing fog was covering the numb landscape, and the rotting ruins of the wood-board cabins could hardly be seen at just about a hundred meters before me. I finally arrived at the place I had sought. This was the North Pole workstation, opening itself up right before my very eyes. It didn’t look a bit friendly or cosy.
I folded the sleeping bag into my travelling bag and blew into the dying embers of the fire. Flames appeared in a few seconds and soon the oil of a lizard’s tail was sizzling on the flat stone. During my journey here I had lost all my prejudice against this kind of food. I had even already eaten fried worms, which could be gathered within two minutes, enough to fill a frying pan.
I tore in half the last loaf of bread, given to me by the shell pickers at the North-east station, and put the sizzling piece of meat in the middle.
The fog was finally lifting. Behind the dead lumbering camp, the gigantic barrier of the forest’s edge was beginning to appear between snatches of disappearing fog. It was a totally different forest than I had known before. Duffy had been right. I could see from here that the bark structure was much rougher than usual. Maybe it was a totally different kind of tree altogether. There were even two trees emerging totally independently from the ground, their tops disappearing somewhere beyond the clouds.
I finished my meal and wiped my fingers on the felt-like fur of the grass. Within a few minutes, I had put my packed bag on my back and headed forward again. If anyone had met me at this moment he would have preferred to get out of my way. My forehead was hot and in my eyes there was a different gleam than before. If everything I had been thinking about for the past two months had been correct, I would be richer after this day than I would have been after working two years as a lumberer in the previous camp…
Air whirls lifted up the aged piles of wood dust overgrown in green clusters of grass, tearing them from the ground and chucking them against the black openings of the galleries.
I fell down to the ground and curled myself into a ball. Two huge reflectors somewhere above me shone through the whirling wood dust clouds. In the roaring of the wind and in the booming crashing of the sawdust against the tree barrier, engines were making themselves heard really loudly and only thirty or so meters ahead of me, a supplier’s personnel carrier was about to land.
They had no reason to be here.
The door beside the pilot slid open. Through the shield of last year’s leaves I could positively recognise Duffy leaning out of the armoured conveyor. By gesturing with his hand, he was gradually lowering the landing machine and at the same time he was speaking over his shoulder to somebody who was still hidden behind him in the cockpit.
It was clear to me that he hadn’t come all the way here just to shake my hand. I crawled out of the pile of rotten leaves like a bolt of lightning, wiped the rubbish off my clothes and dug into the leaves to find my backpack. The skis of the conveyor had just touched down when Duffy jumped out. A bag with an orange strip across it fell out of the machine after him and a guy followed with the same weapon I had seen on Daniel. He was an agent from Special Forces. No doubt he was here to get me. God only knows what Duffy had told him about Daniel’s death.
I threw an armful of leaves over the hole I had made in the ground and silently stepped back into the dark.
It must have been quite a few years since anybody had been here. The trees on Viola regenerate unbelievably quickly and the gallery was nearly grown shut, at places getting so narrow that I had to take off my clothes and crawl forward on my hands and knees, knowing that the only way to get back would be by using my axe.
In the end, I had to face the inevitable. I had managed to get through the hollow center of the trunk and, after a few steps, had come to the end of it. Without a saw I couldn’t get any further…
I gathered enough courage to turn on the lamp I had with me. In the dim light, I wiped the ground with my hand and put my travelling bag down. It was not even midday yet, but everything seemed to point to the conclusion that I would have to spend the night here. There was no way I could come out before dark covered the area.
The screeching of a laser saw echoed through the gallery, together with the calling of contented voices, when a whole block of wood broke out and fell onto the ground. For a moment I panicked. There was no place to step back into and they were quite certainly searching for me…
My blinded eyes were trying to get accustomed to the dark and I was thinking rapidly what to do next. My forehead broke into a cold sweat. I couldn’t lie to myself any longer. Either the guy with the Special Forces badge on his sleeve is on Duffy’s side or he’s got no idea what is really happening here and what’s more, he’s not going to believe a word I say either way. Duffy would need just a minute alone with me to get rid of me in the blink of an eye.
I fled into the hollow in the center of the trunk. I still had a chance…
I picked up the axe and, as silently and as gently as possible, cut into the rotten layer of wood on the outer side of the hollow. A long fibrous plate of the wooden mass, eaten through by worms and the roots of carnivorous mushrooms, had come off the healthy wood without a sound, sliding into my arms. I put it carefully on the ground and then continued just beside it.
Within five minutes I had finished. I had dug a shallow grave into the wall with the sharp edge of my axe, crawled into it and then, as best as I could, I had layered the rotten wooden mass which I had previously cut off the wall over my body. I only left a peering hole so I could see them.
I had no idea how it looked, nevertheless I hoped that with this kind of disguise, nobody would pay me any attention. They would have to trod directly on my body to take any notice of me…
I felt worms on my neck and in my nose but I didn’t dare to move even a bit.
The voices grew louder and closer. Duffy didn’t bother to crawl through the nearly joined walls. He was slicing the walls on either side with his saw, moving aside now and then to let the person behind him illuminate the space before them in the gallery.
“There’s no way the bastard could get through,” I heard the voice of the stranger.
Duffy hawked, spat, and probably shook his head in disagreement with the comment. “The scent trail leads inside and not back out again. If I remember it well, this gallery is a blind one way passage…”
I cursed him inwardly and then held my breath. The cone of light penetrated the hollow in the center of the trunk and danced around the whole room.
“Have we reached the end of the gallery?” the agent accompanying Duffy asked from behind me. Most probably it was his first time in a gallery. His plan was to shoot me the moment he found me, then head for the bistro at the North-east gallery, from where he would be waving farewell to Viola the following day…
Duffy shook his head and led the way to a spot only a few steps from my buried body. He was looking for the continuation of the passage. The passage went on for only another thirty or forty meters and then it ended…
The cone of light had aloofly brushed across the pile of rotten wooden plates covering my body and penetrated the opening of the passage.
“He can’t be far,” Duffy hushed warningly and paused, letting the agent pass him. “It’s not worth taking the risk of running into his trap. Fire through the passage and nobody will ever know that it wasn’t in self-defence…”
My fear vanished and was replaced by anger. Had he been here alone I would have attacked him. But this way the only thing I could do now was to bite my lips and wait for what would happen next…
The agent didn’t react and pretended not to hear Duffy’s suggestion. He had crawled into the opening of the gallery from the side, illuminating the inside of the passage.
The passage turned sharply after a few steps so there was no way he could have seen inside.
“Let’s go in,” the agent commanded, pushing the unwilling Duffy into the passage. “I’ll follow you and cover your back if necessary…”
Duffy’s knees started to shake. I hoped he was scared to death. That he would shit his pants with fear. He was heading towards the opening of the gallery in such a way that it looked as if this had already happened…
I waited for them to disappear in the dark. I sat up quietly, tucked away the biggest part of my wood plate camouflage, gathered my belongings as noiselessly as I could and fled outside. The gallery had been cut through, so now escape was quite easy. Before the two of them could realise that something had happened I was out of the gallery, running away through the forest lit by the scattered rays of Gemini.
I believed they wouldn’t follow me anymore that night, however, I would not be able to escape from them for good. With their scent detector they would track me down anywhere I went. At least until I change the chemical pattern of my scent…
I paused for a while and thought it over. It must be possible in some way, but I just didn’t know how…
A satisfactory distance from the forest barrier I turned at a right angle towards a grass plain and didn’t stop until I was few kilometers away. I made another turn, continued running for another two kilometers and finally headed again towards the forest. The sun was beginning to rise.
Far enough from Duffy’s previous work place, I again touched the wrinkled bark of the tree giants. It was like pristine wilderness.
In the unbroken barrier of the trees, there was no gallery opening to be seen and only a few blackened stones spread around reminded me of the group of shell pickers that used to camp here.
I turned my eyes upward without realising it, nodding my head with satisfaction. If they were able to climb here then I could as well…
I took a good look at the wall above me and whistled softly. It should be even easier than with the trees growing around my old work place. If the tree bark doesn’t crush in my hands then I could succeed.
I planned to climb as high as possible and find some quite big pocket where I could hide. Also from that height I would be able to enjoy a wonderful view of the surrounding area. In the morning I would climb further until I reached the spot where the trees reproduce. Then I would be able to crawl through the pass between the trees and reach the other side above the basins and their secrets…
Half hung in a noose and ropes, I cut off septa in the biggest scaly pocket I was able to find in the morning. Occasionally I glanced at the plateau behind me, but it seemed that my pursuers had overslept a little bit.
I had finally torn off the last scaly septum and begun to pour the water out of the pocket using my pan. I believed that if I managed to slip into my shelter before they came, I would be quite safe.
The bottom of the pocket was literally covered in small shells that had dried immediately. They shone redly and brightly into the sun…
When the two figures appeared at the horizon, only a small puddle remained at the bottom. I rolled into the pocket and pulled up the rope by which I had been secured from the loop only two meters under the pocket. I pushed myself into the bottom of the pocket and began to feel the water dampening my clothes to the skin. It was annoying, but there was not a thing I could do about it as they were approaching very quickly.
The shots from the blaster had burnt the bark and the trunk became veiled by the water steam evaporating from the water pockets. So far I had been lucky. They had had no idea I would climb up so high. Had I stayed only ten or fifteen meters lower I would have wound up being lizard food.
So far it was those lizards being burnt to death. They were leaving their shelters in dozens and were crawling up the tree like a living flood.
After half an hour the shooting died down. They could not have been sure whether they had already killed me or not.
Midday was approaching and the clouds of steam began to thin out. I crouched to the very bottom of the pocket and didn’t even dare to breathe. I could imagine them quite well, searching around, waiting for anything to move. Only after a very long time I gathered the courage to lean out of the pocket and have a look around.
They were standing next to each other, looking southward. They expected some help, I was sure of that. I couldn’t possibly wait any longer.
I kept observing them for a while yet and when it looked as if they had stopped watching the forest barrier I stood up, got hold of the upper fringe of the pocket and, with the help of my legs, reached the floor above. I entered the water and looked down. Nothing. They hadn’t noticed there was something happening above their heads.
I had not looked down for a long time now. My head had started spinning just when I had looked at the horizon searching for those Duffy had been expecting.
There was an abyss beneath me almost a hundred meters deep. I looked up guessing how many more times I would have to swing up into higher and higher water pockets until I would reach the place where the trees divide from each other. I was getting closer. Tiny trickles of water were dripping down the tree, the droplets of water splashing about on the scales of the bark and everywhere around me there were little rainbows arching from one water pocket into the next one.
A dark spot had parted from the sky in the southern direction and had been approaching fast. That was what they had been waiting for. They were going to search the water pockets from the sky to find out if I was in any of them.
I clenched my teeth and sped up my climbing. I dispelled thoughts of exhaustion and continued climbing up the trunk faster than the lizards. The motions of my body had become fully automatic. Arms up, pull up, one leg to the right, prop it against the trunk, lift myself and jump into another pocket.
The pass appeared in front of me so suddenly that I nearly dropped. Somewhere far beneath my body, the conveyor was flying around the forest wall. I could finally rest on the ground and close my eyes.
I hadn’t rested for more than five minutes when I had to go on. Duffy was no fool and would not be satisfied with the fact that he couldn’t see me at just this very moment. The possibility of crossing over to the other side must have occurred to him as well by now. I also hoped that it would have crossed his mind that he would lose the secret of the big shells if he took some stranger with him into the hollows in the inside part of the forest…
It must have been so. The conveyor flew around for a few more minutes and then it disappeared behind the southern horizon again. It could not reach this place to let Duffy get off here at the pass, and on the other side, he wasn’t young enough anymore to climb after me. I knew what he would he do. He would find a passage through to the other side and he would wait for me there…
The surface of the shelf, made of an ulcer-like build-up, lining the trunk at the point where the individual trunks parted from each other, was wrinkled and rough. The bark at this location, growing in many overlying layers piled up upon each other, cracked and broke apart under my feet. Sometimes there was a real danger that I would get stuck in one of the many gaps of the bark.
The giant massifs of newly generated trunks of the family of trees rose steeply to the sky on both sides. The place was dark and pallid shimmering mould had covered the soggy wooden massifs, which had never been touched by the rays of Viola’s sun. A deep scar ran through the middle of the pass uncovering the healthy, deeply orange-coloured wood. The further into the pass, the wider was the passage.
The bark covered in the slime and excrements of the carmine shells had been slipping under my feet and a few times I had to continue crawling on all fours. After a while I had to take the lamp out of my bag.
A ray of light broke through the darkness in the pass and reflected from the surface of the lake, which filled the valley in the pass and covered the scar produced from the trees having divided into individual trunks. The lake spread itself among the vertical slimy walls across which only a madman would attempt to traverse.
The thirty meters of the black surface didn’t look at all appealing to me, but there was nothing else I could do. For crossing to the other bank with dry feet I would have needed wings…
I shrugged, not showing any fear, quite contrary to what I had been feeling inside when I was sliding into the water on my bottom. I had expected that I would have to swim, however, I had reached the bottom of the lake before the water splashed under my chin. I headed forward tiptoeing carefully. I parted the water with my arms in front of me in a desperate effort to keep balanced and for some irrational reason I kept walking right in the middle of the lake. It was as if I had known there was some unexplainable danger in the pools on the sides of the lake.
Something touched my foot and I felt pins and needles in it. I sped up. I could feel myself crushing the shells at the bottom under my feet. Some of them must have been quite big, maybe slightly larger than my big toe.
Something touched me again. I was overtaken by panic. I jumped, a bit startled, tripping over the bottom, which was now rising slightly to the shore, and, for a moment, I sank under the surface of the lake. Remarkably warmer underwater streams gushing out of the bottom touched my hands. My skin started to itch immediately. I emerged from the water, wiped my eyes clear and dived into the water again. Now I knew where and what to search for. The streams were producing the same light as the mould and they were not gushing out of the tree trunk. It was not sap as I had thought earlier – it reminded me more of big gobs of spit, and the shells wined and dined the aliens with their gobs of spit in their world.
Poison, the idea crossed my mind. I tried to swim forward as fast as I could and finished the last few meters at a record speed. The bottom was rising in front of me reminding me of stairs. I crawled up to the dry land on all fours and dropped to the ground, dead tired. A few more streams shining in phosphorescent colour gushed above the surface of the lake.
My limbs began to stiffen. I imagined lizards biting off pieces of meat from my legs and hands as soon as I was to become paralysed totally and I felt sick at the thought.
I finally came to know the secret of Daniel’s death and also of all the others from the woodcutting group from the North Pole station, but it was no use to me now at all. I watched the sky resignedly, blinking my eyes resignedly and, just before my eyelids closed and I lost consciousness I had cursed every little shell that had ever been on Viola…
I woke up around midnight. A freezing wind was blowing through the pass with a howling sound and the lake was being covered over with a tiny layer of ice.
An absolute darkness was surrounding the place. Somewhere close by I could hear the twittering of a tree lizard.
I grinned silently in my mind. Too soon, boy!
I tried to move my hand. It had nearly fallen asleep and I could feel waves of heat and coldness going through my whole arm from my fingers up to my shoulder. Despite all these uncomfortable feelings, my arm obeyed the message my mind sent to it. I laid on my back, shivering from the freezing cold and waiting without a breath for the feeling of life to enter my limbs again. Happy to the point of tears, I kept moving my toes and towards the morning, when the sun was beginning to rise, I turned onto my belly and got up on all fours. The paralysis had left as quickly as it had come.
I felt very weird. I had survived something that had killed many people before. I couldn’t believe I could be immune against something I had never come across in my life. The small shells I had seen up to now obviously couldn’t have produced any poison, otherwise no shell picker would have survived on Viola. So Daniel died because of a big one, the one I had myself seen in his hands…
The image startled me. I had been holding it in my hand against my bare skin, so I must have been given the full dose of poison! Obviously all the other guys had picked up the shells the moment they had seen them and had drawn them closer to their eyes…
I knew I was right. In my case the poison had been diluted in the lake water and that had saved my life…
I stopped thinking about it and stretched my arms. I was starving, but there was no time to start a fire now. I chewed up the last piece of hardened bread I had. The guy that had sold it to me must have talked about me somewhere. Duffy had not gone looking for me until now, he had obviously thought that I had ended up like Daniel. It hadn’t crossed his mind to search for me here in the North before.
I climbed carefully down to the lakeshore. The shells were tempting me. Who knows, maybe I could find some more of them like this down there again.
A whole bunch of this Violian jewellery had covered the bottom of the lake and had been touching the surface. The lake was shining with carmine lights and the water, where the new day had melted the ice, was tossing about in the freezing wind.
Near me a lizard had crawled out of the darkness. It didn’t take any notice of me as if I had always been standing there. It huddled down and turned its back to the lake and then it slowly started to crawl backwards into the water.
The idea of kicking it into the lake had entered my mind, but I pushed it away and got a grip of myself very quickly and only a sour grin remained. Even if the shells had used all their poison on that lizard I would still have no certainty that the shell I would pick up would have used up all her killing liquid.
The lizard seemed to know what it was doing. It moved backwards a few more steps, raised its tail and hit the ground with its tail quite hard. The wood rumbled. Several of the shells closed themselves with a silent slurping sound. The pale light of the poisonous gobs of spit was not visible anywhere.
Another thump, another stamping. The beast waited for a while and, continuing to tap the bark beneath it, slowly dipped into the lake. It dived into the water and swam quickly through the piles of shells close to the lake bank and with its sharp teeth bit into its first victim.
I shook my head in disbelief. This was the same exact thing Daniel had told me before he died. “You have to prepare them for your arrival, then they will let you kill them…” Never it would have occurred to me that he had meant the shells…
I walked around the little creek where the lizard was having its feast and approached the lake surface at another place. I banged with my axe a few times on the smoothed piece of wood rising from the water and in complete astonishment watched the shells that were closing themselves one after another.
Hesitating only a while I entered the lake up to my knees pulling, the hem of my shirt over my hand and broke the first shell of a little pile of shells. The shell seemed to accept it without protest.
My head felt suddenly dizzy and I wanted to cry out in excitement. It felt like all of Viola was bowing in front of me, ready to be at my service…
The valleys among the trees were not deep, lost abysses, they had created a great maze of canyons, lakes and rotting swamps. The walls of the forest maze were more fantastic and complicated than they would have been had they been created by some kind of volcanic madness. With every step I took, I came across some chimney totally hidden from anybody’s chance glance from underneath.
I had traversed over the pass to the nearest place where I could climb down from without a rope and began stepping down. Descending on the rope would have been quicker, but hanging on it I would have been too easy to spot.
I propped myself against the trunk with my arms, closing an angle of 30 degrees between me and the trunk, bent my knees and swung down a half a meter lower. After the paralysing experience I’d had, I still felt a little bit weak, but there was enough time. Anyway, until the evening there was nothing else I could do. I continued coming down, trying to think of a plan. I wasn’t sure whether Duffy knew about the poisonous character of the shells or not, but I had better count on the possibility that he might know…
It was growing dark when I finally jumped down onto a soft pillow of grass. My limbs were shaking because of the exhaustion I had experienced climbing down, and my shoulders were rubbed raw by the bag straps had been hurting like hell from the first few meters of my climb down. I had to get some rest as soon as possible.
Even though I hadn’t seen Duffy or the other one from above at all, I had to presume that they had been around somewhere. Patience was the key to victory. If they had hidden in any of the openings of the galleries that were blackening somewhere two hundred meters from me, they were bound to see me as soon as I stepped out into an open space. Only when the darkness had grown thicker would I be able to proceed further into the inland.
Suddenly the valley exploded in light.
The ray of a laser blaster had cut through the darkness and burnt a hole into the wood that was two meters from me. That couldn’t have been a coincidence. They must have seen me.
I had to escape before it was too late. If they followed me, there would be no chance of me defending myself against them. Nobody wins with an axe or a knife against a blaster.
I disappeared into the darkness. The night was approaching very quickly now. I hoped that they would leave off chasing me until the following morning. I continued side-stepping for a few meters, being careful to the utmost. The soil underneath was swinging uncomfortably and my head began to hurt like hell from the never-ending chirping of the lizards. And last but not least of all, I was expecting another attack from that fellow of Duffy at any moment now.
After half an hour of careful tiptoeing, I leaned on a tree trunk and closed my eyes for a moment. I was not sleeping, only resting, as I could not take the chance of falling into a deep sleep, because it would have been too dangerous. Had I fallen asleep and missed the dawn I might never have awakened again…
Fortunately I hadn’t overslept. As soon as the darkness had been softened by light, I was on my way again. The forest here was much thinner than in the south, providing much better lit environment.
Every word my chasers had exchanged among themselves had been echoed a dozen times in the giant wooden massifs. The echo of each breath and each swearword they had shouted out was audible every time the soil slumped beneath their feet.
After an hour of desperate marching, during which I hadn’t dared to stop for a rest, the valley had begun to grow narrow.
It was certain that the maze would have to end somewhere, but just now it wasn’t exactly what I needed. I squeezed through bushes raised from seeds and stopped. The maze was not ending here. The valley had narrowed into a funnel-shaped gulch, completely flooded with water. Bushes blossoming with shells as big as the palm of my hand had grown in nearly the whole gulch, touching the surface of the water. This was the place I had wanted to find from the beginning. Alone, not with the two of them trailing me…
I turned around and made sure they were nowhere in sight, and hung myself at the edge of the lowest-placed water pocket. I knew from experience that the scaly bed in the bottom part of the trunk is rotten through and is easy to break off.
I wasn’t disappointed. In only a short while, a whole pile of scales had grown at my feet. Immediately I cut down one of the trees raised from seeds, laid it across the water’s surface and disguised it with the scales broken off from the water pocket. The trap was now ready.
I looked around quickly to see if Duffy and his companion had watched my preparations and, with a sigh of relief, disappeared among the two-meter-high baby trees of the tree giants. After twenty meters I bent down, silent, too terrified to even exhale.
They were coming now. Neither slowly nor quickly they continued approaching the gulch. They knew for sure that I had to be somewhere around with no chance to escape. With sadistic smiles they passed my hiding place and, exactly according to the bleeping sound of the smell identifier, headed towards the trap.
The Special Forces agent had been leading the pair of them. That was good luck for me. Duffy noticed the unnaturally placed scales of bark immediately and had stopped. However, he had forgotten to stop his partner.
The agent stepped onto the scales and immediately sank into the water. The poisonous gobs of spit of the surprised shells had covered him before he had entirely sunk. He was screaming in terror, feeling the coldness of his limbs, which were stiffening in unnatural positions.
Duffy had just had enough time to jump back in order to avoid the killing streams of poison and then he raised his head. “That was very good, son,” he shouted towards the gulch. He presumed that I had continued walking ahead. I smiled to myself in satisfaction. That was exactly what I needed.
This veteran of the North Pole station had waited until the excitement of the shells had passed, then stamped a few times on the bank. Then he waited a while and stamped again. The shells closed to indicate they wouldn’t attack anyone anymore.
The dying agent whispered something through the water and vanished into the depths of the water.
I stood up and, knees bent, tried to get closer to the water.
Duffy had so far stepped down to the bottom and had been crossing the gulch, sunk up to his chest.
He froze and turned around.
“Have you got a weapon, Duffy?”
“You know that I haven’t,” he replied hesitatingly.
“Yes, I know that indeed,” I nodded. “I had to hand mine in at the orbital station just like you did. Neither of us can use his then, can we?” I smiled broadly and nodded my head towards the dead body among the shells. “It has been coded and is of no use to us.”
“What do you want?” he barked, annoyed.
“I want to get you,” I murmured through my teeth. “I know that you have a knife. Me too, and, what’s more, I also have an axe. The hunter will be hunted now, Duffy!” I spread my legs apart a bit and threw my arms into the air theatrically. “And this is going to be our hunting ground!”
Without another word I left him to disappear into the space behind the gulch. I prepared some food and then I made a long sharp spear from the trunk of a young tree.
It has been two days now. I am proceeding further and further into the depths of the Violian valleys. Nobody would have ever thought that such a land even existed…
The soil swings under my feet, I cross little lakes and at night I fry lizard’s tails in the fire. I am really used to the taste of them now. Duffy doesn’t make a fire. He is too afraid.
I walk through a hundred thousand credits in the form of shiny piles of carmine shells and I haven’t the eyes for them.
Duffy is somewhere ahead of me. I can hear his stamping every time he wants to cross over a lake. He warns the shells that he is coming…
I keep following him and the distance between us is getting shorter every day.
I see him in my mind, sweating in fear and turning to look over his shoulder all the time. Checking.
It is not going to be much longer now. One day he will have run to the nearest water, scared to death. He will turn around to check if I am following him and before he starts crossing the water, he will forget to stamp…
Originally published in the magazine Ikarie (later to become XB-1) in 1996, later reprinted in the author’s story collection Archivář (The Archiver) in 2004. Translated into Romanian for Fantastica.ro in 2015. First published in English in an anthology Dreams from Beyond in 2016.