Ardra was humid. The ground was moist, grasping at my feet as I walked. There were places I had to avoid because my suit made me too heavy. At least it was enviro-controlled. Without that, I might have roasted inside the shiny silver metal.
Dual suns. I’d never been in a system lit by twin stars, but of course I’d studied them. The plants here grew large. There was an excess of moisture, both on the ground and in the air. The leaves were large, broad, soaking up the sun. Vines ran everywhere. In more open spaces, thick stalks with multi-hued feathery fronds swayed in the breeze.
It took some time before animal sounds began to infiltrate the quiet. I moved slowly, quietly, tracking my path and using a tiny drone above me to record my journey. I was an intruder into the ecosystem, but even an unknown couldn’t hold back life forever.
Animals began to move.
“Whoa.” That thing was… huge. At first I’d thought it was a vine. There were some with divots in them, little wells that looked like they collected fluid that reflected a deeper color. This… squamata species mimicked the colors, but appeared to be scaled. I could only see the top and side from the drone’s view, so I wasn’t sure if it has legs or was limbless. If it did have them, they were very well camouflaged as it wrapped around a branch nearly as thick as my leg at the base near the tree before it narrowed to wispy finger-like fronds nearly three arm-lengths later. The head, a bulbous protrusion, swayed gently on the narrow end, tiny flares of its nostrils the only clue to its living status.
I hurried away from that tree, hoping there weren’t more nearby. Maybe they were solitary creatures and territorial.
Worst case would be if it was a species that liked to swarm. Or hunted prey in a pack.
At least half a klick later, I finally slowed. My rush had scared the wildlife again, and I cursed myself. At this rate, I was going to be a laughingstock. I carefully scanned the trees around the small clearing I’d found.
Nothing showed up on the drone’s sensors.
Sighing, I dropped onto a thick root bubbling out of the soft ground. It was spongy, just like everything else here, so it was actually somewhat comfortable. “Give yourself a break,” I said. “It’s not your fault the first thing you spotted just happened to be the one thing that gives you the biggest creep out.” I shuddered, imagining the tree writhing with limbs covered in those long, scaled bodies. How they might move, slithering around, up and down.
Ugh. My stomach churned. “Gross.” There was just something terribly disturbing about legless creatures’ locomotion patterns.
I shifted and leaned back against the tree, trying to get comfortable with my pack still attached. The gravity was doing me in. I’d only gone about half the distance I’d wanted to, but the struggle to lift my feet was getting the better of me. Excitement and fright could only move my body so far so fast.
Cocking my head, I listened closely. Scratching.
Inside the tree?
I dampened my external oxygen valves, holding my breath so my suit’s mechanics were muted.
Yes, there it was. But… it was barely audible. Was it in the tree? I shifted and touched the bark with one hand. Heat and motion sensors probed under the surface.
No. That wasn’t where I sensed it.
Farther away. Still from the tree… but not this tree. Huh. I glanced around. Were they all connected? The roots did sort of writhe over each other, which made walking hard and tripping too damn easy.
Scooting forward, I pushed back to my feet, holding in a groan by sheer will. I had to find that sound. Couldn’t rest there on the ground in the open anyway.
I shuffled forward, following the knots of roots that poked above the ground before plunging back under, splitting and diverging and coming together in different paths. Stooping, I touched the wood. I felt my way along, sensing the scratching getting louder, more distinct.
Scritch. Scritch. Pause several seconds. Scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch. Pause again. Repeat. Exactly that same pattern, over and over. What if it was some sort of message? What if it was a being the survey had missed?
My stomach dropped out at the idea, and I nearly stopped. But I was so close, and, as always, my curiosity got the better of me. I was so close I could hear the scrape on the wood, not just feel the vibrations and sense some strange echo.
Swallowing hard, I disengaged the shock stick sheathed along my thigh, then silently extended it. The tip would emit a deadly glow when active. That wasn’t my plan, but it could also cause memory loss on a lower voltage.
Creeping close to the widest tree I’d seen yet, I peered around it.
Sitting in a perfect half-circle were four small quadrupeds. They had multiple eyes, a narrow snout, and dark, glittering eyes. Eyes focused on the much larger, much darker, red-striped adult using wickedly curved and pointed claws to tear out the center of the rotting tree.
Even when it dug out a grub—clearly its goal—the younger ones were silent as they fought over the wriggling grubs. Two got on either side of one and pulled it apart in a ooze of pink slime as its shiny shell cracked and the flesh was exposed.
Oh yeah, these things were not something I wanted to tangle with. Still, retreating would be too noisy. I crouched there, regretting my need to follow anything that piqued my interest, for what seemed like forever.
When I dared peek again, long moments after the scratching stopped, they were gone.
Melted away. No sign of them in the bushes or through the big fronds between the smaller trees, and the drone would have picked up if they’d passed me.