BY J. D. WAYE
Copyright is held by the author. This story was previously posted on J. Dianne’s WordPress blog in September 2011. It is the second episode of the “Garden of Hell” series, following after “Tiger Lilies.”
ONE FALSE step, one mistake. That’s all it took to place me between life and death, in this unforgiving solitude.
The waterfall beckoned, luring me with sweet promises of relief from the sweltering jungle heat. Between tall trees dripping with moss, cracked shale glistened with the river’s progress. Two chalk-white moons hung in the emerald sky, alone and exposed in daylight, abandoned by the company of stars. Like Miller and me.
A vine twisted and snagged my ankle, snapping me up like a sprung trap. I hung upside down, winded, disoriented, blood pounding in my ears. The empty waterskin — the purpose of this venture — tangled around my neck and swung like a pendulum beneath my head.
I wasn’t going to call for help. Not yet. Not without trying to figure it out for myself.
Several long creepers trailed from the trees, almost close enough to reach. I started the slow swing, stretching out my hands, reaching. Scaly and thin, the first one came loose and fell to the ground when I tugged. The next one held steady, anchored firmly in the canopy. I dragged myself upright, hand over hand. My ankle swelled from the pressure, sprained by the whiplash effect, but not broken. I pulled out my knife and sawed away at the knot around my foot. Green sap oozed from the slash, sticky residue dulling the blade.
I wiped the blade clean on my fatigues and gripped the knife handle in my teeth. Too late to worry about a poison ivy rash; not too late to worry about ingesting toxins. My left limb tired from supporting my weight, so I tried to switch arms. A tendril wrapped around my wrist, trapping me.
To every action there is a reaction.
I sheathed my knife and pulled out my revolver, waiting for the swaying to still, and fired. Hard not to miss, at point-blank range. The rope broke, releasing my foot. I danced and dangled like a mad parody of a hung corpse. The grip on my wrist released, plunging me onto the forest floor.
Bashed head, swollen wrist, twisted ankle. My ego suffered the greatest damage. I had panicked, wasting precious ammunition.
The canopy overhead stirred, as if set in motion from the wind. But no breeze penetrated this crevasse. A hissing noise rose, sinister like a rattlesnake; the forest floor writhed with coils and ropes coming alive. I blasted another shot into the deepest verdant spot. Foliage and bark floated in the air; green amber wept in gleaming puddles. But the noises stopped dead.
“Eva. Eva.” Miller’s shouts echoed off the cliff wall, louder each time, no longer drowned by the pounding of the waterfall behind me.
“Don’t come in here.”
He paused, riveted by my tone, hesitating. Captain Miller, Lord of War, held hostage by indecision. Surveying the scene, analyzing the odds with his detached objectivity, he pulled out his revolver and aimed at a tree trunk.
“No—don’t,” I screamed, too late. I covered my head as leaves shattered and scattered. The tree groaned, sighed, and toppled across the pile of vines.
Silence fell, an uncanny void; even the pounding water muted. Overhead, the palms leaned to block the sky. I shivered. Miller pushed the log my way, tightrope-walking across it until he loomed over me. His hands, strong and competent, reached out to jerk me free. I swung onto his back, arms gripping his neck.
I closed my eyes as he balanced across the trunk. If he fell into this snake-pit of roots, there would be no one left to rescue us.
His boots thumped on bouncing wood, then he lowered me onto bare wet rock.
“Can you walk?”
I tested my foot, not wanting to take off my boot because of the swelling. I wouldn’t be able to get it back on again. “No.”
“Did you get water?”
“No.” Useless, and a liability.
“I warned you it was dangerous. I ordered you not to go off alone.” Brown eyes, made hazel by the jungle gloom, narrowed. I waited for him to bark drop and give me 20, or whatever he said to keep his troops in line, but he looked up and away, distracted. The reprimand on his lips died. “What the hell?”
He grabbed me and ran, breath hacking in a parched throat. I dared to look behind. The vines were moving, snaking across the broken shale, reaching for us. One snagged across my neck, tendrils wrapping over my throat, snatching me from Miller’s back. I thumped to the ground, tearing fingers struggling with the stranglehold. Miller sparked up his flame thrower and blasted the closest palm, incinerating it. Trees swayed and groaned like banshees. The creepers retreated.
Miller picked me up again and followed the river’s edge, as it opened into a torrent of water surging from forest depths. It plunged into a valley; more jungle that way, an endless sea of green.
Sweating, exhausted, he put me down on a pebbly slope away from the hissing trees, and stopped to fill the water bags. A single purifier tablet remained. He shook the bag, dissolving the pill, and held it to me. What was the point? We were going to have to drink the water, sooner or later. I scooped up a cupped handful of river water and poured it down my throat, returning his cool stare.
Some kind of fruit-bearing plant leaned over the river’s edge. Miller busied himself, gathering the crab-apple globes. Starving, I accepted a palm-full of berries. Tart and refreshing, they filled my stomach and quenched my thirst at the same time.
I wanted to say I was sorry, tell him I was wrong for disobeying his orders, but I didn’t know how to start. “How do you know they’re safe?”
“I study up on the local flora and fauna before a mission. This one took half the time, since there’s no fauna here.”
“There used to be,” I said as I held up a broken fossil, something primitive like a trilobite. I needed him to keep talking, to keep my crazy thoughts at bay. “Why do you study so much?”
“I got left behind, once. Had to survive on my own, fight my way out. Things like that change you.” He reached for another handful of fruit, but as his fingers touched the cluster it withdrew, curling away and vanishing inside the leaves.
In the pools of water at the river’s edge, water lilies closed their heads, tucked and folded their petals like they do when dusk falls on Earth. Tiny Creeping Charlie runners along the shore retreated into their base. The grass flattened.
“It’s all connected,” I said. “It’s all one organism. Each plant reacts to the next.” Loneliness overwhelmed me — and the fear that we couldn’t fight an enemy we couldn’t understand, couldn’t relate to. I hadn’t been trained for this — this monster all around us, in the air we breathed. Carriers of plague, banished from our kind. No future here, not for us.
I held out the fruit to him, the last of our supply. It wasn’t fair he wouldn’t get any, now. And I didn’t need it, any more.
“We need to go back to the village,” Miller said. “We can’t keep surveying with your ankle like that. We need supplies — batteries, communicators, food.” He fumbled in his pack, turning away from me.
No. I couldn’t go back to the deserted village, to the ghosts that wandered there.
My hands trembled as I unholstered my pistol. Cold steel cut into my temple.
“Perez,” he said. “Don’t be a coward.” His voice shrilled, rose in anger. “Don’t give in.”
I shook my head; couldn’t speak, couldn’t look into those eyes.
“I am a soldier. Say it with me. I am Private 4930 Eva Perez, citizen of Earth. I am a prisoner of war. I am strong. I cannot be broken. You are my enemy, but you shall not defeat my spirit.”
His hand touched my sunburned shoulder, skin flinching from the contact.
“Say it, Eva. Say the words. I am a soldier.”
Words so softly whispered, barely rising over the bubbling stream. “I am a soldier.”
Our voices rose in unison, the soldiers’ creed our prayer; unifying, solidifying, bringing hope to my soul.
I let his hands move mine away; his fingers slipped the gun from my grip. Angry, I wiped away unwelcome tears. “I am a coward.”
“No. I’m the coward. I can’t face this alone. I need you, Eva. Don’t leave me. Promise. Promise not to leave me here, alone.” He slumped against the rocks, pebbles etching dents into his knees, where he knelt before me.
“I promise,” I said.
The jungle murmured and watched, as the river led us back to the village. If we spoke, the echo got those trees humming their rattlesnake chorus again.
Grassland finally opened before us; golden wheat fields choked with indigenous plants, weeds or grass or whatever flourished here. Moss crawled over the village buildings, sinking footholds into brick and shingle, tearing down eaves troughs, spreading wide cracks through the sidewalks — eradicating, on a rapid scale, all traces of the attempt at colonizing. Waist-high crops rustled on their own accord as we waded toward the gazebo.
“Take what might be useful,” Miller said. “Anything you find. I’ll see if I can spark up the generator, get our batteries recharged.”
“Should we bury them?” I limped around the corner of the gazebo in the town square, where the last two members of our away team lay dead in their bio-hazard suits. Ivy tendrils wrapped around Rogers’ feet, crawling up and across the five steps to the platform. Rosevelt was buried under the shroud of leaves, somewhere. It would take some time to wrestle the bodies out of this mess.
Blossoms dotted the stems, pretty long white petals among waxy leaves. Purple fruit, oblong and eggplant-like, hung from thicker stems. Translucent skin promised juicy contents. I bent down, fascinated, as the orbs shimmered and flickered with shadows moving within.
“Are they edible?” I asked.
Miller shrugged. “Never saw that on the list. Better not take the chance.”
Was it a trick of the light? Or was some kind of insect living inside, like the worm in a Mexican jumping bean? I plucked one of the eggplants from its stem and cut it open. Purple juice spilled over my hands, the contents flopping onto the wooden floorboards. A tiny fetus, a replica of us — revolting, bizarre.
The plants had cut through Rogers’ bio-suit, penetrating into skin, stealing his DNA. Creating, evolving a new life form.
Miller dragged me off the steps. His flame thrower blasted, blazing and charring. The eggplants screamed, high pitched and piercing; I covered my ears. The roof licked with fingers of fire, collapsing onto the unholy harvest, ending that horrible sound.
I lifted my head, to follow the plume of black smoke carrying away the pungent odour of singed flesh. Two moons stared down, scarred by a wisp of white trailing across the emerald sky: a shuttlecraft contrail.
Someone else, come to join us in Hell.