EEQ-14, the 14th Earth-Equivalent planet surveyed lay outside the ship out of Kyle’s reach since his parents didn’t let him out.
Regulations. Rules. Worry that he might get hurt by the planet’s unusual plants.
Only what more could they do? He was already trapped inside.
A story for anyone who longs for an adventure.
Kyle watched the golden sunset through a porthole pitted with the years of micrometeorite impacts. The glass, called glass even though it wasn’t really but because that’s what people called it, gave the scene outside a fuzzy, dreamy quality. Complicated growths rose up from the surface of the planet outside. Trees. That’s what people called them, though they weren’t. At least the trees he’d read about, the ones from Earth, those didn’t walk on thick gnarled legs that would take a chain of a dozen adults to reach around.
These trees walked.
From the safety of the Earthseed’s living quarters Kyle watched the trees walking outside, taller even than the huge vessel that had brought his parents to this planet. To EEQ-14, the fourteenth Earth-Equivalent planet found by some survey done back in the solar system he’d never seen. Here, on this planet, trees hundreds of feet tall walked toward a golden sunset.
No one tree looked just like any of the others. He could see one close now to the window. The bark of the trunk-legs looked rough and dark like the scab he’d gotten on his knee after falling down while running on the track around the habitation deck. As the trunks rose they melded together into a fantastically massive solid trunk bigger than the survey shuttles that hung in the Earthseed’s hangar deck. Thick branches stuck out at all angles from the trunk, writhing and lashing about, always moving as if propelled by a strong breeze. The end of each branch was covered in broad round gray-green leaves. The tree leaned forward, branches blowing back and snapping forward whip-like as it strode after the setting sun. Old leaves twirled and spun off in its wake.
Hundreds of trees, thousands of trees, a whole parade of trees, chased the sunset in a sort of mad stampede. Kyle worried about the Earthseed. If those trees collided with the ship even the defensive shields wouldn’t hold. He pictured those massive limbs, those scabby trunk-legs, ripping through the skin of the ship, casting the crew down, crushing them beneath the branching “feet” at the bottom of each trunk.
“Clive,” he asked the ship. “Is the ship in any danger from the trees?”
The ship answered, calm tones soothing. “I don’t believe so. This island was monitored by remote probes for the three weeks we stayed in orbit. None of the trees crossed the river to the island.”
“Can you give me audio? I want to hear what it sounds like out there.”
“Of course, Kyle.”
A loud rushing sound filled the room like a gale. It roared and pulsed through the room. He heard branches creaking, snapping, the creak and groans of wood tortured and twisted. The din filled the room. He pressed his hands against his ears.
“Turn it down!”
“My apologies,” Clive said. “That was the decibel level outside.”
The sound dropped. Still loud, but not so loud that Kyle felt the need to cover his ears. He pressed his face against the warm glass, looking through the many layers as the trees rushed by. He heard the water rushing over the rocks below the island where the Earthseed perched. Another tree came into view, easily twice as massive than those in front of it. Two lesser trees scattered from its path. One of the smaller trees, still at least a hundred feet tall, slipped at teetered on rocks along the river’s edge. Branches whipped and snapped as it fought to keep its balance. He heard the cracking booms of its limbs and trunks. Then the giant was past and the smaller tree regained its footing.
EEQ-14’s sun sank lower. Only the tops of the trees still glowed with that golden light. Above them the blue sky, laced with bits and pieces of clouds scattered across the sky, dimmed.
“Okay, restore the sound to the outside level.”
“As you wish.”
The sound rushed as if he had been dropped into a storm. It battered at his ears but Kyle didn’t cover them. He stood, bracing himself against the window. If he focused he could hear the river, or the sounds of the smaller tree stomping away through the rocks, kicking some in sharp cracks like gunfire. But the din didn’t sound quite as loud as it had been only a minute earlier.
While he watched the trees started to slow and the sound of wind dropped. He heard the river clearly.
Behind him the door hissed open.
“Kyle! What is that racket?”
Kyle turned around as his mother rushed into the room. Claire Mainter, biologist and well-liked on the crew. Petite, dressed in her tight blue uniform, her blond hair pulled back into a pony tail. Kyle had once heard Assistant Director Pete Collins refer to her as a pixie. When he had told her that she had grinned and laughed, but Dad hadn’t looked happy about it. When he had asked what it meant she said that it meant that she reminded Mr. Collins of people from fantasy stories, but if that was the case then he didn’t know why it bothered Dad.
“Clive,” Claire snapped. “Turn that off.”
The sound cut off immediately. “My apologies, Dr. Mainter.”
“What were you doing?” Kyle’s mother asked again.
“I wanted to hear what it sounded like outside.”
A smile crossed her face and was gone like a flash of sunshine. “It sounds like a storm, doesn’t it?”
Kyle nodded enthusiastically.
“The thing is they only move when there’s been good weather. It’s like they have to build up their reserves and then they make a run for it all at once. Unless there are other trees in their way and then they just wait, like at the start of a race when you’re in the back and can’t start running for several minutes, not until the people in front of you are going.”
Kyle hadn’t ever been in a race. He hadn’t been anywhere expect on the Earthseed. First in space, and then here on EEQ-14. Running wasn’t allowed in the ship corridors. But he didn’t point that out to his mother.
“I think we’ll see a few more stampedes like this one before the season ends.”
“They don’t move when it gets colder?” He knew the answer, Calvin had showed him the survey videos done.
But knowing the answer and hearing it from his mother were two different things. He so rarely saw her these days. It was always survey this, survey that. The trees rushing to get nowhere gave him a rare chance to have her home. Even now, though, he saw her eyes starting to drift to the door that led into her small office. If she went in there she wouldn’t come out again, not for hours and hours.
“Why do they do it?” he asked, trying to keep her talking. “Why do the trees move like that? They don’t do that back on Earth, do they?”
She shook her head, blond ponytail bouncing. “No. Trees on Earth stay rooted in one spot. They do move, growing to get the best light, but that happens slower than we can see most of the time. The trees here evolved this unique survival mechanism. Basically if there’s space on one side and trees on the other they build up energy and then dash away, as far away as they have energy to travel, before putting down more roots. That creates a gap that then the next trees rush to fill and so on until some trees aren’t ready or it gets too cold.”
Kyle’s forehead wrinkled. “Wouldn’t they all just stop, I mean like even out so no one is too close to anyone else?”
His mother reached out and pulled him close into a hug. She crouched down beaming at him. “You’re so smart! It does seem like that’d happen, wouldn’t it? There’s more going on here than just access to light, though. Soil properties, terrain barriers, and injuries or death of trees. Sometimes they end up clustered together and then the cluster runs apart only to encounter others, and well, it’s a very chaotic system.”
“It sounds cool,” Kyle said enthusiastically. “Couldn’t we go out and see them closer?”
“Sorry honey, it’s dangerous. Once we understand the details more of what’s going on, and find a way that’s safe for the trees to keep them out, then maybe we’ll be able to claim a section of land for our settlement. For now we’ve got to stay in the ship.”
She stood up and touched his shoulder. “In fact I’ve got lots of work to do. Are you okay playing by yourself for a while longer? If I could just work for an hour then I’ll make dinner. Deal?”
Kyle kicked at the featureless floor. “Sure.”
“Thanks honey. I’ll see you at dinner. If your father gets back in before then maybe he’ll join us.”
Fat chance of that happening. Kyle forced a smile on to his face. “I’m fine. Go ahead.”
With a final wave his mother disappeared through the door into her office. She wouldn’t come out in only an hour, despite what she said. Time always got away from her and if he tried reminding her she’d just say that she couldn’t stop yet. He’d find something else to do and if it got too late he’d fix dinner for himself. Chances were he’d go to bed without seeing either of his parents again tonight.
Life on the Earthseed hadn’t changed much with landing on EEQ-14. Kyle had his studies and his parents had their work. They all stayed busy all the time, except for brief moments like earlier with his Mom when their paths crossed. As Kyle sat at the slide out table eating his reheated meal of roast beef and roasted vegetables, he looked out the window at the trees still rushing on even as the sun had nearly set.
A whole group rushed into view, jockeying about for position. A tall thin tree with many whip-like branches was gaining ground on the others, widening its lead. Then it suddenly slowed. A few more faltering steps and it stopped in its tracks. Kyle put a piece of zucchini in his mouth and chewed, enjoying the slightly rubbery garlic and oil flavor of the zucchini while watching the show outside. The other trees caught up almost immediately but one big tree with gnarled dark brown bark failed to change course fast enough.
It smashed into the thinner tree! Branches whipped out grappling with each other as both trees tottered. Kyle rose from his seat and pressed his face to the window. The other trees in the crowd managed to change course, parting to pass around the two struggling trees. The trees that had collided rocked back and forth, smashing at one another in an effort to get disentangled.
“Let me hear it, Calvin, but keep the volume down so we don’t bother my mother.”
“Of course,” Calvin answered.
With the volume low it sounded like a distant wind blowing in the trees, but wasn’t overpowering like it had been before. It was still enough that Kyle could hear the snapping cracks of the branches as the two trees fought.
It looked like a fight now. They pummeled each other and staggered around, some branches always locked together. The other trees had already gone past and were in fact slowing but these two trees seemed determined to fight over that spot.
The fight didn’t last long. The thinner, maybe younger, tree that had stopped first ripped itself free of the other’s grip, leaving behind branches in the process. It ran away on two massive trunks. The bigger victor settled down in the vacated spot. Thick tendrils at the bottom of its trunk sank into the earth. The branches shook and broken bits, including those torn from the other tree, rained down on the ground beneath it. The sun had nearly set when its branches drooped down and hung still at last.
The other trees had also stopped. The wind of the rushing trees died down and the forest was silent. A large gap remained around the victorious tree, while the loser had moved as close to others as it could.
“Okay, thank you Calvin, that’s enough.”
“As you wish.”
Kyle rocked back in his seat. The trees had finally stopped moving. Shouldn’t it be safe to go out among them? He knew that some of the biologists did that, went out at night to collect specimens. He’d get in trouble if he was caught, not just from his parents but for breaking ship regulations.
But it might be worth it, too. A chance to get out of the ship and explore? What could they do except confine him again, just like now?
Thinking about sneaking out of the Earthseed and doing it were two very different things. Kyle finished up his meal, put the dishes and utensils in the recycler and then headed back to his room to get his stuff.
His pod, for one, so that he could record and document what he saw. The emergency flashlight from his room because it was getting dark. He wanted some sort of bag and settled on grabbing one of his spare shirts. He knotted the sleeves together and tied off the bottom of the shirt, leaving the neck open. It gave him a basic bag. He tossed the pod and flashlight into it, then slung rolled the whole thing up into a bundle which he tucked under his arm. Carrying it like a bag might draw attention, the bundle shouldn’t get much notice.
As big as the Earthseed was, it didn’t take very long to get where Kyle wanted to go. All he had to do was walk down the corridor to the nearest transit car, get in and use his palm authentication to give the car his destination. The forward, main airlock. The car took him to the hub lobby just off the main airlock bay.
It was very busy. Kyle had only ever been here once before, with his father for a class assignment to see where most of the activity in and out of the ship happened. There were other ports of entry, but the primary one was at the Earthseed’s fattest point, mid-section, part of the wider bulge that wrapped around the ship. Everything connected up to it, all of the vehicles and shuttles, and maintenance droids. As the car came to a stop Kyle had his face pressed to the car’s bubble top, just trying to take it all in.
The hub lobby ceiling was far above. Actually, ceiling was all relative since the Earthseed maintained an internal gravity field. The dock his car stopped at was only one of dozens strung like beads along a string that curved up, away and overhead at least 50 meters above. Transit cars buzzed in and out constantly, docking only long enough to pick people up or let them get out, and the string he was in was only one of a dozen other tracks suspended above the main floor.
The canopy top slid silently back and warm air that smelled of machines and people flooded the car’s interior. But beneath that familiar smell was something else, richer and organic. The smell of the air outside?
“Please disembark,” Calvin’s voice said. “In order to facilitate the timeliness of the transit system, please disembark.”
Kyle grabbed his bundle and scrambled out of the car onto the platform. He glanced up at the cars and docks overhead, the swallowed when his stomach wanted to do somersaults. He focused on the dock beneath his feet but the scuffed deck plating showing the wear of so many feet did little to comfort him.
“Thank you,” Calvin’s voice said again.
“You’re welcome,” Kyle said automatically, even though he knew that Calvin wasn’t really focused on him at the moment. That voice was nothing more than a subordinate program running simultaneously along with thousands upon thousands of others at the moment. The ship’s artificial intelligence wasn’t really paying attention to him. At least Kyle hoped that Calvin wasn’t paying attention. But if Calvin was, he wasn’t questioning what Kyle was doing down at the main docks.
Kyle hurried on, just in case Calvin had some program watching to see if anyone lingered on the transit docks. He took the ramp down to the main concourse and headed toward the main airlock.
Calling it the main airlock made it sound like there was only one, when in fact there was a whole complex of airlocks. Big ones designed for vehicle use that could accommodate entire convoys, as well as all sorts of specialized airlocks for different equipment. He didn’t really know all the details, but he had learned that the smaller maintenance locks were individually keyed while the bigger ones allowed entire groups through. He didn’t really have a plan except to get close and see what happened. If anyone asked, he could always claim he came down to find his Dad and see when he would be home.
Like the transit car docks, the lock doors followed the curve of the ship up around but the lower locks were all lined with red indicators. Kyle knew what that meant. Those pointed down with respect to the planetary gravity field. If you opened those doors you’d fall. They’d talked about that during his field trip. Kyle kept walking until he got to the green lit locks. The whole time it looked like he was walking down a slope, but felt perfectly flat thanks to the Earthseed’s artificial gravity.
People were busy all around. Researcher types in their light blue uniforms like his mother, and the engineering types wearing uniforms marked in light green. There were loaders and lifts moving crates around, people shouting, talking and hurrying around. Kyle hugged his stuff close and tried not to look lost or afraid. That’d attract attention. He walked straight ahead as if he knew where he was going. If he had to he’d walk clear all the way around the ship rather than look lost, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
Then, just up ahead, Kyle saw an open airlock and a crowd of people moving in and out. It looked like they were bringing in crates from outside. Samples, most likely, maybe specimens from the island and the river. That’s as far as people went. Kyle clutched his bundle tighter and kept going.
His heart hammered and his mouth felt dry. As he got closer he could see over the heads of the people in the lock. Both doors were open. Exobiology had already judged EEQ-14 within habitable parameters as far as pathogens were concerned. It didn’t make it safe, but safe enough. He’d heard that enough from his mother.
Kyle squared his shoulders and walked straight toward the lock. If everyone kept thinking that he belonged there then he’d get away with it, just slip out in the confusion.
And he’d almost made it too when a hand grabbed his shoulder.
Kyle jumped and twisted around. A pretty woman, younger than his mother maybe, but wearing the green of the engineering crew stood behind him. She had a soft round face with big dark eyes and matching dark hair. Her lips looked very red when she smiled. She bent at the waist and pressed her hands together.
“Very sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” Her voice sounded soft, like a breeze just rustling the trees. “I’m Megan. Are you lost?”
Kyle shook his head. “No. I’m not.”
Megan’s smile widened. “I think you’re a little young to be on this work detail. What’s your name?”
“Kyle.” Kyle made himself laugh even though he felt like he was going to puke. He had to think of something to say, but his mind had gone into complete melt-down. He couldn’t think of anything.
“What’s that?” Megan nodded at the bundle he held.
The bundle! That was it. “Stuff for my Dad.” Kyle turned and looked at the people at the lock. A man turned and glanced in their direction. Kyle waved his hand vigorously. The man waved back. Kyle looked back at Megan and grinned. “Okay?”
Her smooth forehead wrinkled and then she nodded. “Okay. But don’t hang around, alright? I know it’s interesting, but the locks aren’t really a place for a kid. You don’t want to get run over by a loader or anything.”
“I’ll go straight home after,” Kyle promised. After he had a chance to see the outside for himself.
Megan touched his shoulder, then stepped back. She gave him a small wave. “Go on, then, Kyle.”
Not believing his good luck, Kyle turned around and walked quickly toward the open lock. The man that he’d seen was busy loading sample crates onto a trolley. Kyle walked straight toward him, but when Kyle got there he slipped past the man and kept walking.
All around him the lock rang with the noise of the activity. People rushed around him but no one really paid him any attention, they were all so busy with what they were doing. Before Kyle knew it he stood right at the top of the ramp with the world right there, right down in front of him.
It smelled real. Not like the men and machines smell of the Earthseed. It smelled like dirt and plants and water and he could hear the sound of the river rushing past even though he couldn’t see it. This low he couldn’t see much of anything except dirt and rocks, and the springy sorts of blue-green plants that grew everywhere. Bushes covered the hillside on his right, crawlers that moved too, but not like they trees. The bushes rolled, slowly, from place to place as they jockeyed for the best position.
Kyle didn’t even look to see who had called out. He bolted down the ramp. He ran as fast and as hard as he could, his lungs sucking in the outside air. He felt like he could fly down the ram. More shouts behind but he didn’t look back, he didn’t hesitate. He hit the ground running and turned right, running in the shadow of the ship toward the far side of the valley. He wanted to get high enough up to see the trees, maybe down the other side as far as the river. It didn’t matter.
Fifteen minutes later Kyle crouched by some rocks down at the river’s edge. Lights danced along the ridge. Search parties. He couldn’t believe he had managed to stay away from them so long. Once he had gotten up among the crawling bushes he had dropped down and scrambled up the hillside. The crawlers shivered as he passed but were too slow to really react.
On the horizon the sun dropped completely out of sight. Kyle was surprised it didn’t immediately get dark, like when you switched off a light. Sure, everything wasn’t as bright, but he could see well enough to make his way even without using his light. Well enough to make it all the way down here to the river.
It looked narrow at this point and dark. The sound of it rushing past reminded him of the wind of the rushing trees, a constant powerful white noise behind him. He made his way upstream, away from the search parties with the lights. Soon they’d send out fly cams with all sorts of tech to find him. He couldn’t believe he’d gotten this far, but he couldn’t very well get in more trouble now so he figured he might as well keep going.
Kyle was moving from boulder to boulder, trying to keep the big rocks between him and the search parties with something wet and hard lashed around his thigh. It squeezed hard and yanked him off the rocks!
Before he could yell he plunged into the river. Kyle splashed his arms, dropping his stuff in the process. Whatever had him hung on like a clamp, pulling him under. He couldn’t see anything in the dark water. It was cold and took his breath away. His chest burned. Real fear seared along his nerves. He wished he had never run out!
Kyle reached down and felt what grabbed him. It felt rough but pieces rubbed off when he grabbed it. Kyle tried getting his hand beneath what held him and the instant he did he felt something else in his head.
Darkness. Fatigue. Panic.
Kyle recognized the feelings, but they weren’t his. His chest burned. He needed air!
Abruptly whatever held him thrust him up, rushing through the water. His face burst out of the river into the air. He gasped and breathed in hungry gulps.
Searchers, shining their lights on the ridge line, looking for him.
Kyle got an impression of many limbs, of the thing holding him. A tree! A tree submerged in the water, washed up on the shore of the island. Disorientated. Confused. A tree didn’t have eyes. They sensed the light, the warmth of the sun. It grabbed him trying to pull itself out of the river.
He reached down and grabbed the branch still holding his leg with both hands. He pictured it loosening, letting go.
Please, Kyle thought. Let go!
The branch uncurled. Kyle held on and floated with his head out of the water. In his mind he pictured the tree pushing down with branches on the river bottom side, lifting itself up out of the water.
Kyle concentrated. Try! Push!
The tree shuddered beneath him and then he felt it move. The surge of water rushed around him, almost tearing him free. Kyle wrapped his legs around the branch and held on. Two smaller branches on that side of the tree steadied him. With the sound of wood groaning, the tree broke the surface of the water. Kyle hung on as the tree rose higher and higher, carrying him with it. It crawled up until it regained its footing. He sensed how tired and weak the tree felt but now that it had gotten out of the river it seemed in a hurry.
Hunger! Fatigue! Sleep!
The tree staggered up onto the rocky beach. Search lights on the ridge turned and pointed down. Bright lights fell across the tree and Kyle, almost blinding him.
With big cracking steps the tree stomped across the beach, grinding rocks with loud crashing noises. Shouts went up on the ridge. Kyle squinted through the lights, seeing people running down the side of the hill. The tree kept going until it passed the last of the rocks. When it reached the ground it stopped moving. Thick tendrils or roots around its legs burrowed themselves into the ground, anchoring it.
The tree’s limbs drooped. Kyle slid down the thick branch that he was on, sliding down until he could drop safely to the ground.
Then the search parties reached him, gathered around him, shouting questions. Two pushed to the front. His parents! Kyle staggered when his mother grabbed him and pulled him into a hug.
Kyle expected to get in trouble, but he didn’t expect to have to face the ship’s Board and Director. He’d never even been up onto the Earthseed’s Command deck. Now he walked between his parents down a huge hallway light with soft warm lights and shockingly bright green Earth plants growing out of pockets in the walls. After spending so much time looking out at the gray-green of EEQ-14’s plants he hadn’t remembered what really green plants looked like.
His mother touched his shoulder. “It’s okay, Kyle. They want to hear what you have to say, that’s all.”
Kyle looked at the floor and nodded. Getting yanked into the river by the tree was one thing, but this? He rubbed his hands on his pants and somehow kept walking.
At the end of the corridor was a smoky glass door that slid silently to the left out of their way when they approached. A tall thin man, almost no hair on his head and what was there was white, stood just inside. He wore the bright blue uniform of command. And his deeply lined face was split by a broad smile. He reached out to Kyle.
“There you are, lad! Come in! Come in! We’re eager to hear what you have to say!”
Kyle couldn’t do anything except blink at the man. Not just any man, that was the Director, waiting here for him at the door! Director Reynolds.
“Sir. Sir.” Kyle heard his mother and father say.
Director Reynolds nodded. “Thank you so much, quite the brave lad you’ve got.” The Director winked. “If a bit disobedient!”
“Sorry, sir,” Kyle whispered.
The Director wave his hand and made a dismissive noise. “At least you weren’t hurt! We have protocol for a reason, young man. To protect people from harm. But don’t worry about that, you’ve got time to learn all about it. You’re the first person to communicate with the trees and we want to hear it from you, first hand, what it was like! You may have just found the key to let us truly settle this planet. We’re very excited.”
The Director’s hand fell on Kyle’s shoulder and guided him on into the chamber. It was big with a large U-shaped table surrounded by people. And they all were watching him walk in, but their faces looked happy.
Kyle felt some of the tension loosen in his chest. Another person walked across the room, but it wasn’t really a person at all, but a silver-skinned, willowy android with large blue eyes. The soft-metal face formed a smile.
“Welcome to the Ship’s meeting,” Calvin said. “I apologize if my inattention allowed you to come to any harm.”
“He’s fine,” Director Reynolds said, scowling. “Are we ready?”
“Yes, sir,” Calvin said smoothly.
Director Reynolds patted Kyle’s shoulder and gave him a little nudge. “Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce a brave young man, Kyle Mainter, he’s going to tell us about his adventure.”
Kyle swallowed nervously, took a breath and looked around at all the faces watching him. It felt good. It felt right. Everything was going to be alright after all. He wasn’t in trouble, they just wanted to know what happened. What it was like to talk to the tree. He smiled. He couldn’t wait to tell them, and maybe, just maybe, he’d get to go out and climb in the trees again!
This story is the 44th weekly short story release, written in August 2011. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Manifesting Destiny.