Adventurer's Notebook: A Scout's Honour (Chapter 11)
A birch tree erupted from the ground in their midst, roots shooting out like enlivened serpents, shrouded in an explosive cloud of earth and rock. Anna skipped away, dancing clear of their grasp. Philippe and Scarlett cried out in alarm as they fought to maintain their balance. The forest around them flared into a mass of activity as trees came to life. The earth churned in great gouts as more and more roots ripped from the ground. Weapons fired in all directions.
Micheline launched forward, letting loose into the birch, its dying screeches announcing it imminent collapse and eruption into flames. Anna rushed by, her vibro-sabre slicing through the entangling roots containing Philippe and Scarlett before she turned and sprang into combat with a pair of nearby maple-Arbors.
“Piggy,” Philippe cried as he readied his plasma rifle. The two of them unleashed a torrent. Flames erupted in massive blazes amongst Arbors and inanimate trees alike. Once again the forest went ablaze, the sickening smoke from dead Arbors coalescing along the ground while the remaining smoke billowed upwards in a vast column. The forest was awash with it, blinding and choking. The darkness of dusk was reversed by the flickering lights from the expanding inferno, bursts of light declaring gunfire. Yet more Arbors came.
Micheline helped the gasping Scarlett secure her helmet. Scarlett visibly responded, her movements less erratic, panic controlled as the armour’s internal systems cycled the smoke through its filters. “We gotta run,” Micheline cried into the radio net. She grabbed Scarlett by the shoulder and kept her from doing something foolish and suicidal. ‘We are here to keep you alive, after all.’
A monstrous spruce that towered above the canopy, its lowest branches perhaps ten meters off the ground, blasted from its position. Scarlett and Micheline went tumbling as the roots threw them along with rock and dirt in a massive upheaval. Scarlett started screaming as roots the size of her thighs encompassed her, squeezing her torso, left arm twisted painfully behind her and snapped at the elbow.
Micheline wasted no time and sprayed the Arbor with laser fire. By far the largest they had seen, it paid little heed to her weapon’s impact, scorch marks littering the bark along the lower trunk. It just wasn’t enough. “A little help here,” she cried out.
She nearly fell over as Anna caromed around her and hacked through the roots gripping Scarlett. The scientist collapsed to the ground among the chips of wood and hacked roots, rolling in pain. Piggy and Philippe raked the spruce-Arbor, sending it into a shaky withdrawal. It still reached for Scarlett, roots gripping at the prone woman.
“They’re actively targeting Scarlett,” she informed the rest of the team.
“Duke, grab ‘Red’ and follow me. We’re heading back to camp. Piggy, Anna, rear guard!”
A quick burst of Philippe’s plasma burned through the roots trying to drag Scarlett away. Micheline reached down, grasped the woman’s good arm and started the difficult process of staggering from the battle. She followed Philippe’s lead as he scoured anything that remotely resembled an approaching Arbor. Scarlett was barely responsive, yet she kept placing one foot in front of the other.
The screams from the dying Arbors were everywhere. Plasma shots ignited them; the massive glow from the flames illuminated the forest as if it were midday. She preserved her shots, firing only as they burst forth virtually right next to her. She cried out as one plucky Alder-Arbor managed to swing its branches around, sending Scarlett and her to the ground. Anna swept in, her vibro-sabre once again releasing them before bounding into combat again.
“I’m almost out of canisters, Anna’s down to the vibro-blade,” Piggy said motioning behind them. Anna swept her weapon across two birch trees, sending both upper halves crashing to the ground, exploding into another source for the inferno that now seemed to surround them. The rapidly expanding fires were now beginning to create a gust effect, winds being drawn into the flames as they sucked in massive amounts of oxygen.
Micheline handed Piggy her Wilk’s 457 and tossed a few extra e-clips. “How far,” she grunted as she hefted Scarlett back to her feet.
Piggy shook his head. The unspoken remark was punctuated by Philippe firing a mini-missile into another Maple-Arbor, his plasma rifle slung across his back, canisters spent. Behind them, Anna failed to leap out of the way of a massive branch that caught her square in the torso, sending her flying through the air. She landed heavily and for a frightening moment, lay unmoving before her body twitched and she kicked herself back to her feet. Her vibro-sabre was nowhere to be found.
Anna ripped a pistol out and started firing, Piggy covering them as they continued to try and press forward. The inferno continued all around them, her ears now ringing with Arbor death cries.
Someone shouted out something unintelligible and Scarlett dove for the ground, dragging Micheline down with her. Micheline grunted as she bore the brunt of the impact. Scarlett cried out in pain. A massive light flared above them, a kaleidoscope of colours and effects. The forest went still, the Arbors eerily stilled, frozen in place.
An accented voice yelled, “Der Run!”
Micheline ripped Scarlett off the ground, Philippe at their side with a weapon rod. “Who,” she started to ask.
“Move,” Philippe barked in reply.
As they punched through the ring of Arbors bearing down on them, a bizarre crackling resounded throughout the forest. Despite her environmental armour, a static charge made her hair stand on end. A massive clap exploded behind them, causing her to falter a step. She risked a glance behind them and caught the fading edges of a massive ring of electricity cutting through at least a dozen Arbors. A chorus of fiery explosions and piercing cries followed.
The lights of the camp were just visible through the last hundred meters of trees. Both the Mountaineer and Kennie’s ATV were idling, weapon systems trained towards the forest. Kennie stood behind the open driver’s door, rifle aimed and waiting to cover Six-Delta's retreat. As Micheline stumbled into the open, Scarlett leaning heavily into her, Philippe pointed her to a set of crates. She dragged Scarlett over and they collapsed against them. She ripped off her helmet, gasping and sweaty, and started unclasping Scarlett’s.
“What the fuck,” she heard Kennie start. Piggy and Anna jogged into the camp, a figure floating in the air above them.
Startled at the sight, she initially mistook it for an extremely old man. The hunched, emaciated figure floated effortlessly, its attention still largely drawn to the forest behind them. Its skin was a dull grey, hair a shockingly vibrant mix of purples and white. Its eyes were a pair of pearlescent orbs, no visible iris. With its gaunt face, she couldn’t shake the feeling he was someone who had just recently died and come back to life. It came to the ground a safe distance away, reaching into one of the storage containers and bringing out a pair of bottles.
“Yak ji-maj,” it said, offering one of the bottles. “Yak-ji-maj,” it repeated. They all watched it, gobsmacked.
The Mountaineer’s turrets swivelled to target the newcomer.
“Niev dankbarzny,” it commented, seemingly a little exasperated. It took a swig from a bottle.
“Hey, that’s my whiskey,” Piggy exclaimed. He took a few steps forward. The being offered a bottle anew. “I’ll be damned if I accept my own hooch as a gift,” he added.
“Stand down,” Philippe ordered. “You too Erik,” he called out over his shoulder. The Mountaineer’s turrets turned back towards the forest; Micheline noticed Philippe’s weapon rod remained at the ready. Whatever this thing was, regardless that it may have helped save them, he wasn’t taking any chances.
“What the hell is that thing,”Kennie asked. “What’s with the hair too?” The being’s hair flowed gently, some unseen breeze keeping it gently flowing.
“A damned thief is what it is,” Piggy replied.
“That thief just blasted apart more Arbors in one shot than we all could in a minute,” Anna added. Coming from her, the comment left a sobering, lingering silence.
Micheline helped the struggling Scarlett get to her feet. Scarlett groaned in pain, cradling her left arm. “Vasha imie,” she called out, coughing as she spoke. The creature broke into a toothy smile, took another swig and began rambling before Scarlett raised her good hand to stop it. “Shkad,” she asked. A few words in reply later, Scarlett nodded.
“His name is Strom. He came through a rift on the far side of the mountains. I think he probably means the Appalachians. He claims the Arbors came from that region as well. He’s speaking a peculiar dialect of Euro. I’m guessing he’s from somewhere in Eastern Europe or the old Russian Federation. He says he’s been observing us for days.”
“Then thank him for his help,” Philippe instructed curtly. “You have the samples you need, ‘Red?’ Good, then we’re done here and breaking camp. We’re not fighting off or burning down any more of this forest.”
Scarlett paused and could only purse her lips in reply. “Do we have food to spare? He’s starving.”
“One look at him could have told you that,” Kennie said.
Scarlett shrugged her shoulders and immediately winced. “He’s obviously a D-Bee, so who knows. I figure it the least we could do.”
“We only have about two days of rations for all of us. That would be almost two weeks for this dude,” Kennie offered, turning to Philippe.
Philippe hadn’t looked away from Strom once during the exchange. He kept his stare, the weapon rod still a flick away from use. “Keep one meal for each of us, dump the rest for him,” he ordered after some thought. “The hooch too,” he added, ignoring Piggy’s protests.
“And Strom,” Scarlett asked.
“Not saying I don’t appreciate what he did for us, but that’s all he gets.”
“No love lost over a helpless D-Bee,” Scarlett commented, dripping with venom.
“In case you missed it, he is hardly helpless. Hungry, but far from helpless.” Philippe turned away.
“Aren’t you in the least bit curious where he comes from? What he can tell you about the other parts of Earth? What about the activity on the far side of the Appalachians?”
“You have your samples. We leave as soon as possible, so gear up ‘Red.’ We’re done here, your contract with us is over.”
Continue to Chapter 12 (forthcoming)
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