“Arbors are what she is calling them,” Erik explained, the flames of their communal fire illuminating his worried expression. “Apparently, she grabbed a sample from one of them just before you came out of the forest. As we ducked into the vehicles, she jumped into the Mountaineer's lab and hasn’t left since. She mentioned something about a fungal infestation, locked the lab down, and she won’t answer my calls.”
Erik sat slumped against a tree stump, just outside the circle of warmth of the fire. Mostly cast in shadows, only his face and hands were lit, the latter wringing together unconsciously. His eyes were bloodshot, the haunted look of a man coming off an adrenaline high and dealing with lack of sleep, worried sick about his wife.
“Those screams,” he whispered, a shaking hand coming up to shade his eyes from the group.
The withdrawal from the forest had been a textbook manoeuvre for Six-Delta. The last person in line walked back, laying down a hail of gun fire while those behind sprinted back to positions of cover. Once their clip was expended or they were about to be overrun, that person skipped to a flank and ran back to the front of the line, reloading and awaiting their turn anew. Meanwhile the last person did their best to stem the tide before they themselves retreated.
The tactic had given them a significant edge. Trees seemed to close in on them, whether animated demons or not. The smoke made the forest seem so much closer and threatening, claustrophobic. The Arbors seemed capable of popping up out of nowhere, a wave of bark and branches that never stopped, seeking them out without pause despite the horrendous losses they suffered. Six-Delta's withdrawal, the constant moving, allowed them to escape the choking clouds that threatened to consume them. They couldn’t shake the smell of burning wood from their armour.
“At least we know the plasma weapons are particularly useful. Anna’s vibro-sabre cut through them like butter,” Micheline said.
“They did, didn’t they,” Piggy said with a fond stroke across the façade of his plasma rifle.
“Yes. Yes, they did,” Anna added, easily manipulating the massive blade in her hand. She looked over at Piggy; the two shared an intimate laugh.
“All kidding aside, these things appear to be Scarlett’s new obsession. Any chance we can get a word out of her? We may not be safe here for long,” Philippe said, his thumb pointing east. On the distant horizon a faint glow flickered, the evident result of their encounter as the forests burned uncontrolled. I don’t want to get into another scenario we can’t handle ourselves.” Micheline shuddered as his comment reminded her of the barely foiled ambush on the convoy they had recently been tasked in protecting.
“I’ll give her another try,” Erik sighed, grabbing the remote communicator with the Mountaineer’s lab. He keyed in a couple of times, each time pleading with his wife to answer. There was no response; she ignored him “Perhaps too consumed in her work to notice.”
“Is there any risk of infection or something,” Kennie asked, pointing to the Mountaineer.
“It’s a sealed environment, fully contained when locked down. The only person at risk right now is Scarlett.”
“Only one at risk from the specimen she took,” Anna corrected. “Those Arbors may still very well be out there.”
Erik could only nod.
Philippe slapped his hands together. “Anna, you and the squad get some rest. I’ll stay up with Erik and keep watch with the Mountaineer’s turrets. After you get what sleep you need, you take control of the turrets and continue watch. We’re strung out tired, so get some sleep. Don’t get too comfortable. First sign of those things and we bug out, straight for Sherbrooke.”
Micheline did nothing to argue. As she threw out a sleeping bag over a slim foam pad, she lay down without undoing her boots or unbuckling her armour, her rifle cradled in front of her. Sleep overtook her all too easily.
An indeterminable amount of time later, her internal alarm pinged in her cybernetic ear. She woke feeling relatively refreshed, sighing in relief at the time. The solid six hours was a respite she was all too happy to have experienced. A thin haze filtering through the air, the smell of wood burning more prevalent than a camp fire would suggest. Her gut clenched as her instincts kicked in. She rolled to her knees, her rifle gripped and ready to engage. Anna joined her, holding up her hand signalling for silence, and then jutting with her chin off to the east.
Micheline saw the sun, cresting over a landscape that was set ablaze. A massive trail of grey smoke rose up in the air, the cloud snaking away from them as the slight breeze continued towards the Appalachians.
“We’re about to have an interesting day,” Anna warned. She sound amused.
Micheline wasn’t sure Anna’s comment boded well. She cocked her head slightly.
“Philippe got a radio call about an hour ago. It appears our egghead dynamic duo ended up speaking together again. After they spoke, Erik called MSI and renegotiated a new, extended contract for our services.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“Speaking of mister ominous himself,” Anna said, moving off to resume her sentry duty.
Philippe rounded the corner of the Mountaineer, he face flushed, clouded in anger. Behind him, Erik walked like a man who had just received a severe scolding for having his hand caught in the cookie jar. He purposefully avoided looking at them, moving to the Mountaineer’s pilot cab and clambered up inside.
“Get the rest of the squad up and ready. I’ll brief you together,” said motioning to a spot overlooking the fires to the east.
Piggy and Kennie took little time to get ready. Both woke and blinked the sleep away, appearing well rested and smiling. Philippe was first joined by Anna; the remainder collected around. The Mountaineer’s turrets once again cycled through their initial system check.
“Straight to the point,” Philippe started. “Erik called in an extended contract for protection. Scarlett’s been awake non-stop in her lab since we left in a hurry and found something ‘extraordinary’ in her words. Don’t ask, I couldn’t care less what she meant. Apparently they both like what we’ve done keeping them alive, so they asked to keep us around. We’ll be getting double hazard pay and wartime classification for the contract.”
“Mo-money,” Kennie laughed mirthlessly. Philippe gave him a sidelong glance that brooked no further interruptions.
“Apparently they want to capture one. Barring that, a larger sample for Scarlett to work with. We’ll work out the specifics on how later. For now, grab the gear and get ready. We head back in an hour.”
The squad moved off, Philippe waving her over again. “What’s up boss,” she asked.
“We may need to leverage you a little more on this one. Our rations are short and we may need to forage if this lasts too long. Not ideal when the forest can come to life around you.”
“Demon trees or not, any venison or game will be driven way off because of the firefights, let alone because of that inferno.” She shrugged. “I’ve got my snares and fishing line. The bow and arrows are still at the old site. Are we really going to try to capture one of those things?”
“How do you think I got us double hazard and wartime classification?” He laughed at her expression. “When Erik called MSI, they radioed me. I gave my assessment and suggestions. They returned with the much higher price and Erik agreed.”
“Does Erik know?”
“You think I care if he does?”
“Touché,” she laughed.
“Let’s go tree hunting,” he said without much enthusiasm.
They returned to their main camp and found most of the gear completely untouched. Several tent flaps fluttered in the breeze, ripped free from their pegs, but there appeared to be no significant damage. Crates remained mostly untouched and unmoved. Only one of the food stores seemed to have been damaged, likely rummaged through by a bear. The tree line remained unchanged, but the forest five hundred meters away had been reduced to a still smouldering, charred ruin. Smoke still lingered in the air. ‘At least it isn’t staying close to the ground,’ Micheline noted.
The Mountaineer rumbled to a halt, parking almost exactly where its tires had left massive ruts the day before. Gun turrets swept the area and sat in their attentive sentry mode. Erik exited the pilot cab, followed by Scarlett from the lab. She had a wide-eyed look, fidgeting in place, her hair still up in a ponytail, several loose strands sticking out in all directions and her white lab coat smeared with several multi-coloured stains. She hadn’t bothered to wipe and of the smudges of soot from her face, but her hands were cleaned to a pristine level. Despite the obvious exhaustion she must have felt, she was eager and alert.
“Ideally we need to capture two specimens,” she started, her words tumbling out before Erik and Philippe each raised a hand to slow her down. She paused for a second to collect her thoughts, taking a few deep, shuddering breaths. “I noticed that the Arbors are using both deciduous and coniferous trees as hosts. To ensure we have a better idea of what we are dealing with, we need to get a sample from both a hardwood and a softwood Arbor.”
“So not captured alive,” Philippe offered.
“I don’t think that would be possible. Ideally, yes, but not with the limited resources you have.”
“Thanks,” Anna added dryly.
“We re-establish the camp and head out in one hour,” Philippe ordered. “No arguments,” he stated when Erik and Scarlett started to comment. “Go get changed ‘Red.’ If you plan on coming, get into a set of armour. And grab a pistol.”
Two hours later, Philippe urge the party into the woods, leaving Erik in charge of the Mountaineer, and Kennie with the ATV and hover cycles.
Micheline was in the lead, her cybernetic ears picking up everything from random beetle calls and birdsong, to the rustle of leaves swaying in the late autumn breeze. The relatively silent footsteps of Six-Delta were a counterpoint to the inexperienced footwork of Scarlett, seemingly capable of trampling over every dried branch or twig the forest had not seen fit to consume in fire. She seemed more interested in whatever device she carried in her hand than where she stepped. It amazed her that Scarlett had found a way to not fall flat on her face.
As they moved from the green of the remaining forest into the burned zone, they found the desiccated husks of the Arbors. Among the numerous hotspots that still sputtered with flames or discharged thin columns of smoke, the remains of the trees seemed to petrify when they died. Instead of being consumed to embers in the inferno that ravaged through hectares of land blackened and burnt wasteland, the remains of the Arbors were nearly intact.
This fact fascinated Scarlett to no end. In addition to her constant yammering, she pulled out a small hammer and started collecting samples. Philippe had to stop short of relieving her of her pistol, after she had tried to use the weapon as a way of cutting through the rocky remains. The shot had ricocheted off the Arbor-rock and nearly blown off the front of Piggy’s boot.
They continued patrolling through the dead zone, stepping clear of the hotspots and careful not to reignite some of the smouldering patches. The expanse of ruined trees and burned timber extended for almost a full kilometer before they came to the edge of the flames’ influence. Keeping an eye to the south, Micheline could still make out the columns of smoke rising along the distant hills, fires that still burned through the countryside towards the Appalachians.
The afternoon turned to evening, the sun descending behind the tree canopy of the western horizon. The complete lack of signs of any further Arbor curbed Scarlett’s enthusiasm into a dulled, silent anxiety. For Six-Delta, the long day of hiking through the forests, ever on the watch for a tree that may come to life and attack, had been exhausting. The light beginning to fade, Philippe called an end to the patrol.
Their return pace had them traversing the scarred portion of the forest at dusk, chasing the fading light of the sunset; the horizon behind them still showed a couple of bright palls of light, fires still raging. The frost of their breathing was evident, the evening breeze give the air a chill. Micheline could feel the sweat on her face and into her hair cooling her, looking forward to changing her clothes.
Halfway through the forest, the Arbors struck.
Continue to Chapter 11 (forthcoming)
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