Chapter 10: Hungry, Hungry Plants
“We are approaching the Junglar Sector now,” said Solaris, as they dropped out of hyperspeed.
“Acknowledged,” said Rynah.
The others stood in the command center, watching the giant screen before them as they entered an unfamiliar solar system.
“Why is this sun green?” asked Brie.
“A star can be any color,” replied Solaris. “The gaseous makeup of this particular star has turned it green. Some say that it is the reason for the abundant plant life.”
“Oh.” Brie stepped back until Alfric’s giant form hid her.
“Take us into the planet’s atmosphere,” said Rynah.
“Very well,” Solaris said, as she headed for a greenish-blue planet that was fifth from the sun.
“Hang on,” said Rynah. “Entering a planet’s atmosphere can get a little bumpy.”
The turbulence jostled the ship as though it were a mere child’s toy, knocking them off their feet.
“A little bumpy!” exclaimed Tom.
Rynah steered the ship to a small clearing. “Solaris, I want you to run continuous scans of the surrounding area. We should return in two hours.”
“And if you don’t?” asked Solaris.
Rynah didn’t answer.
The five companions left the ship through Solaris’ rear hatch, which opened onto a gangplank, and entered a world none of them had ever seen, one that even awed Rynah. Gigantic plants, the height of houses, with stems that were various shades of sea green and ecru, oval leaves of deep green on each side, which provided a sense of symmetry, heads that resembled unshelled almonds with petals of sanguine, plum, ruby, and sable, with specks of bronze upon them, loomed over the landscape, dwarfing the five newcomers. They stared at the plants, mesmerized.
“Let’s move,” said Rynah as she stomped across the ground.
The others followed.
Sweat streamed down their backs, causing their clothes to cling to their skin as the humidity, which created a vaporous layer above them that refracted the sunlight, sapped their energy. What had started as a brisk trek through a jungle soon became one of exhaustion. Their sluggish feet stepped into the soft, moist earth that acted more like a claw, reaching out for them, clinging to them, and preventing their movements.
Tom jerked his head around. He had the distinct feeling of being watched, a feeling he could not shake. A slight swish prickled his ears. He turned his head again and scanned the landscape, but everything was calm, too calm. A small part of his brain urged him to run.
“You feel it too?” asked Brie.
“Like we shouldn’t be here.”
Tom surveyed the area again and silently agreed with Brie that they needed to leave.
“Keep up, you two,” snapped Rynah.
“I swear all she ever does is give orders,” mumbled Brie.
Smiling, Tom agreed. She is bossy. He joined Brie and trailed after the others, forcing his mind to forget the small warning bells it sent him. Plants can’t watch you. Something brushed his back. This time, Tom swung around, raising his hands in a protective stance.
”What’s wrong?” asked Brie.
“Something touched me,” said Tom.
Brie looked around. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but Tom’s expression forced her to believe him. “Guys, we need to leave.”
“What now?” demanded Rynah.
“This place is alive,” said Tom.
“Of course it’s alive,” Rynah answered in a bored tone. “There are plants all over the place, meaning that life exists here.”
’That’s not what I mean,” Tom said. “These plants are watching us.”
“Impossible,” scoffed Rynah.
“I’m telling you—”
“Where is Brie?” asked Solon, interrupting Tom’s tirade.
Silence ensued. All of them glanced around as Brie had disappeared. A soft choking caught their attention. A few yards away, Brie hung suspended in the air as a leafy arm, resembling a claw more than the part of a plant, clutched her; a vine, snaking from the plant’s head, around its body and to her mouth gagged her, while the plant’s other leafy hand wrapped around her throat, forcing her lips and cheeks to turn turquoise in color.
A menacing battle cry erupted from Alfric as he charged the monstrous plants, sword raised. With one swift strike, he sliced through the plant’s arm that had latched itself around Brie’s throat. Brie crashed into the dirt, coughing and spitting out globs of sap.
More of the giant plants closed in. Alfric eyed them, realizing that Tom had been correct in his assessment: the plants were self-aware. One root shot straight for him. He dodged out of the way and brought his sword down upon it. The plant recoiled before retaliating by opening its mouth, exposing razor teeth, and releasing a deafening roar.
Frightened, Brie crouched low to the ground, covering her ears. She screeched and pleaded for it to stop.
“Take my hand,” said Alfric.
Brie shook her head.
A tendril wrapped around Alfric’s ankle, yanking him off his feet and causing him to lose his sword. Desperate, he clawed at the ground to keep from being pulled into the creature’s mouth. Another leafy tendril curled around his waist and squeezed. Unable to breathe, Alfric tried to wrench it apart. It squeezed tighter.
Hunkered in her spot, Brie watched, helpless, as Alfric was dragged away, dusty, fibrous vines coiled around his torso. She glanced at the others, unsure of what to do. They fought off the vicious plants in vain, firing their weapons and swinging fallen branches. Someone hollered her name. Cringing, her hands covering her head of mousy brown hair, Brie just wished she were home, that it was nothing more than a mere dream.
A series of sputtering and muffled yelps made her look up. Alfric struggled for breath. Brie snatched a stick and raced for the man that had saved her life twice, slipping between the carnivorous plants as they tried to grab her. Alfric was about to pass out when Brie smacked the plant that held him with her stick. Startled, though not hurt, the plant reared its ugly head towards her, loosening its grip on the Viking. Brie stared at it, dropping her stick. She turned to flee, but it lassoed her and pulled her close.
Distracted by Brie, the plant failed to notice that Alfric fell free of its grasp. The Viking lunged for his blade, snatched it, and cut off the leafy arm that held Brie. With one great leap, he charged the creature and with a mighty swing of his sword, cut off the thing’s head. Not wasting a moment, Alfric seized Brie, and together, they raced back to where the others fought for their lives.
Rynah leapt over a root that aimed for her feet. She somersaulted across the ground, pulled out her laser pistol, and fired. Squealing, the plant monster cried out in agony; its orange eyes glared at her. In retaliation, it reached for her again, seizing her long, emerald hair, which she had pulled in a braid, and jerked hard. Despite the intense pain in her scalp, Rynah aimed at the creature’s mouth and pulled the trigger. Two laser blasts hit it in the back of its throat. It formed a sour, pinched face before tumbling over.
Freeing herself, Rynah glanced around. She spotted a cave nearby. “Over there!” she yelled, pointing at it.
The others turned and ran for the opening, leaping over protruding roots that popped out of the soil and reached for them. Something crashed into the ground, flinging debris that pelted their skin. Tumultuous noise raged around them as they ran for their salvation.
One by one, they entered the dark hole of the cave. Rynah counted each of them as they entered. Taking one last shot at a carnivorous plant that attempted to enter the cave with them, Rynah ducked inside. Knowing the voracious plants would never cease pursuing them, she did the only thing she could think of: she fired three shots at the cave entrance. Thunder loomed around them as rock and boulders crashed to the cave floor, blocking the entrance and sealing them inside, and their fate.
“How are we to get out?” asked Tom.
“I don’t know,” breathed Rynah.
“Rynah! Rynah!” came Solaris’ voice over her earpiece. “You must all come back to the ship immediately. I have conducted additional scans of the planet’s surface and have made a terrible discovery. The plants are meat-eating and—”
“Thanks, Solaris,” replied Rynah, “but you’re a little late.”
“Oh,” said Solaris. “What is your current location?”
“We are sealed in a cave,” said Rynah. “I don’t think we will be able to rendezvous with you on time. Stick to your orders.”
“So how are we getting out?” asked Brie.
“We’re not,” said Rynah.
“I never should have left home,” mumbled Brie as she wandered to a secluded part of the cave.
Rynah released an exasperated sigh. Of all the people Solaris had to pick, she thought. “What are you doing?” she asked Solon, who studied the cave wall with intense interest.
“Where there is an entrance, there must be an exit,” he replied. “I am certain these tunnels run deep and will lead us to another way out.”
“Really?” said Rynah. “And how can you be so certain?”
“Would you rather just sit here and wait to die?” asked Solon.
Rynah holstered her pistol. “The rest of you remain here. Solon and I will search these tunnels. If we find anything, we’ll let you know.”
“And if you don’t?” asked Tom.
Rynah walked away with Solon in silence, refusing to answer Tom’s question. Tom didn’t mind. He had already guessed the answer.
Brie huddled in a shadowy corner of the cavern, its gloominess fueling her own, hugging her knees close to her, head hung low. She had screwed up earlier and she knew it. Why did they bring her? Brie knew she wasn’t brave or warrior-like material. She was just a teenager who only wanted to get through high school and escape the endless taunts of Jenny and her friends. Brie felt all alone. The others looked upon her with disgust. Rynah had nothing but contempt for her. Brie wished she could go home. Maybe they’d be better off without me.
Heavy footsteps approached her. She glanced up and looked at Alfric before turning away.
“Why do you sit here alone?” asked Alfric, his gentle tone surprised her.
“Go away,” mumbled Brie.
“It is not good to be alone.”
“I screwed up today, okay?” Brie tried to hide the sob in the back of her throat, but it came out anyway.
“A mistake can be learned from,” said Alfric. “Why do you frighten easily?”
“I don’t know what you mean?”
“Why do you let fear take you? When faced with a challenge, you cower.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Why? What frightens you?”
“Nothing!” Brie stood up.
“Nothing? You curled in a ball while the rest of us were attacked.”
“I don’t do well in conflict. I hate confrontation.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter. Or would you rather spend your days as a coward? Why? Why do you run?”
“My father, okay?” Brie’s voice bounced off the walls of the cave. “He died because of war. He died because of conflict! And now I am nothing but a weakling for the likes of Jenny to pick on each day.”
Silence loomed as Alfric smiled, having gotten to the cause of Brie’s problem. “Your father died in war?”
“Yes,” replied Brie.
“My father also died in war, but I do not let it stop me from defending myself.”
“Who is Jenny?”
“Some girl from school. She and her friends chase me home almost every day.”
“So stop her,” said Alfric.
“I can’t,” said Brie.
“Can’t or won’t?”
“I just can’t!”
Alfric closed the distance between them and pushed Brie.
Alfric shoved her again.
In answer to her demands, he shoved her a third time, nearly knocking her off her feet.
“Make me stop,” said Alfric as he shoved her a fourth time.
“Look, I don’t want to fight,” said Brie, who tried to back away.
Alfric pushed her again.
“I said to stop!”
“Then why don’t you stop me?” He shoved her a sixth time.
Infuriated, Brie pushed his arm out of the way and punched him on the chin, recoiling, putting her hands over her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Alfric touched the sore spot where she had struck him. “The next time Jenny chases you, you should strike her as you have struck me.” He turned to leave, but paused. “Never apologize for defending yourself from an attack.”
Brie stood alone in the darkness, unsure of what she thought about what had occurred. She flexed her fist, marveling at the sense of power she felt when she forced Alfric to stop pushing her around, and at the sting that still remained on her knuckles. Maybe he had a point.
Rynah snapped a glow light around her wrist. “Here,” she said to Solon as she snapped one around his wrist.
“What is that?” he asked, having never seen one before.
“Think of it as a torch,” she replied.
She and Solon walked together in the damp, murkiness of the cave, her boots making heavy clomps compared to Solon’s sandals, which sounded more like taps. She waved her light at the cave wall, noting the smooth, multicolored ripples that lined it.
“What makes you think that there is another entrance?” asked Rynah.
“This,” replied Solon, pointing at a tiny stream of water. “It must have a beginning. That is our way out of here.”
Smiling, Rynah peered closer at the stream. “Perhaps you’re of some use after all.”
“Is that the reason why you brought us all here? Because you thought we would be useful?”
Rynah slowed her pace. She knew that she had not been entirely honest with Solon and the others, but how could she?
She faced him. “No.”
Solon’s expression indicated disbelief. For a brief moment, Rynah felt that the young Greek philosopher could see right through her. “I brought you all here because you were the only ones who could help me.”
“One man’s lie is another man’s truth,” said Solon.
Solon faced her. The stern expression on his once calm face unnerved her. “I don’t care what your reasons are for wanting Klanor dead,” he said. “I just ask that you be honest about them. You owe us all that.”
Rynah felt heat escape her as Solon scrutinized her. She felt she had been reduced from the leader of the group to a student. Rather than consider his words, she reiterated the same story. “I have been honest. Klanor destroyed my planet and means to destroy yours. You and the others are the only ones I can trust.”
“Because of an ancient legend.”
“Interesting how readily we trust strangers over the ones we know,” said Solon as he continued to walk upstream, “Klanor is not all that he seems. When he taunted you, I sensed that there was more to his offer, an internal struggle, but there was more to your answer as well; there is turmoil in you. I fear that you have a hard lesson to learn, Rynah.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just like I must learn to be on time for my studies, you must learn to face whatever it is you are hiding, even if you do not realize that you are running from it.”
“I am not running from anything,” said Rynah.
Solon didn’t respond to her statement. He turned back around and continued after the small stream, its slow trickle filling the tunnel with its song. Light spilled up ahead. Using the glow light around his wrist, Solon guided them to what he saw.
“What is it?” asked Rynah.
Solon stopped under a hole in the cave ceiling, beaming as the sunlight shone through it. “I have found our exit.”
Rynah stepped over to him and peered up at the hole. It seemed big enough for them squeeze through. “Let’s go tell the others.