“Anything hurt?” He realized that he should have asked that question first thing. The woman shook her head no.
“Nothing serious. A couple of scratches to my face, and my head still hurts from getting hit there.” She continued to stare at the forest, as if to make sure the trees wouldn’t start walking towards them.
“Okay. I should check you out for your head, but we should move from here. My beacon landed not too far away. That’d be a good place to start.” He motioned towards where his beacon had landed; it was visible from where they were standing, only a short walk away.
She nodded, and the two of them walked away from the forest. They walked in silence. The sound of crunching upturned road, separated by the lonely whistle of wind moving through concrete wreckage, were the only sounds either of them heard.
“Here, sit down. I’ll take a quick look and we’ll get going.” He started looking around in his pack for the medic kit he’d packed before the job started.
“How’d you know where to find me?” she asked, sitting down on an old sidewalk ledge. “I was in the middle of the forest.”
Rick smiled. “Sorry if this makes you feel any worse, but you were lucky on that front. I figured if you had landed anywhere outside the forest I would have seen it.” He took out a penlight and took a look at the side of her head. Blood, but it was superficial. “I guessed on the odds. Alright, now look at me please.”
She did as was asked. After looking at her eyes, determining nothing wrong with their light response, he held up three fingers. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
She looked at him, stony faced. “Three.” Her eyes bored into him.
“Good. Okay, follow my finger with your eyes only.” He moved his finger in several directions. She followed without issue. He nodded, satisfied.
“It seems like you’re fine. We should move.” He packed up the kits, put it away, and made to go. She got up and did the same. “Our first mission was to find out if your monster exists,” he continued, “so we should look for it. Where were you when the attack took place?”
The woman shook her head slowly. “Far from here. Very far. The drop pods must have screwed up somehow.” She looked towards the Spike in the distance. “I was near where the downtown core used to be, what we call Union Square. It’s where the majority of people who live here settle down.”
Rick turned to his mental map, and judged the distance. “That’s not actually all that large a distance. According to the maps I’ve studied, walks like that would take about two hours, even with shitty terrain.” The woman stared at him as if he had lost his mind.
“Two hours is a pipe dream, hunter. Your maps are old, or you’re senile. The only way we’re making it there in less than three days is if we take another one of those damn drop pods. For starters,” she began, counting off her fingers, “there’s the rubble. The harder terrain wouldn’t amount for much, except there are huge ravines and deep cracks in the ground. Those take a lot of effort and time to cross.”
“Okay, but even counting that-”
“I’m not done, hunter. Because after the ravines, the rubble, and the usual danger of bandits and bastards attacking us, we know that something out there has gone horribly wrong.” The woman’s face turned dark, and she started breathing heavily. “Dead trees don’t suddenly start attacking people and dragging them into holes. My arm didn’t go fucking missing, and my throat isn’t just gone, okay? Two hours is a fucking joke!”
Rick could see she angry, and fearful. The incident where she lost her arm, and now the ambush in the forest, had put her on the edge, carefully teetering between utter panic and keeping it together. Truth be told, he was still in shock from the trees as well; the difference here was that he was used to combat and dealing with stress. It was his job, how he made a living, and he had to deal with life and death situations every day. If it was a bandit or a tree mattered little in the grand scheme of things.
He raised his hands in submission. “You’re right: it’ll take a while, and it’s going to be dangerous. We’ll get there though, even if it’s not today. For now though, it’s pretty obvious we’re done. Let’s find someplace to hole up for a couple of hours and make some headway later, yeah?”
The woman took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Right. Sorry. I’m just…” her face fell. “Between the stress, the adrenaline, and all the near death, everything recently has me a bit raw.” She looked back up, her gaze drifting over to the Spike far in the distance. “For the record, a two hour guess just makes you sound really, really stupid.”
Rick chuckled. “Hey, I haven’t had to venture much further than a thirty minute hike from where the elevators leave off, which is somewhere over the old Queensway area.” He put out his hand. “I’m here to help, really. It’s my job, one I’m pretty good at. And hey, you’re really good in a spot yourself; you saved my life. We make a good team.”
She looked at his hand. “Yeah, so far so good.” She said, shaking his hand.
Royce was sitting in his lab, researching, when his phone chimed. Royce was fond of customizing the chimes on his phone: each of his colleagues got their own sound. Some were little jingles; those were for the people he liked. Others got small beeps; those were for the people he wasn’t fond of. One chime was very unique; a delicate voice saying ‘hello?’, as if the person saying it was unsure they were alive. That was a recording of the woman’s voice, a voice he gave her, that he built for her. He didn’t exactly know why he kept the recording, but it felt somehow… correct, to use it as her chime.
He checked his phone for her message.
“Survived drop pod. Trees attacked us. We’re alive. Recouping.”
Royce expected a simple ‘we made it’ message. Instead, he received some of the most puzzling information to have come to him in years. Trees? Attacking? He rattled his brain trying to come up with an explanation for the bizarre message.
When nothing came up, he did the logical course of action; he sent her back a message asking what happened.
“‘Clarify.’ That’s all he sent back.” She laughed a little, and began navigating the user interface on her forearm to send a message back.
“To be fair,” Rick started, “trees don’t attack people every day. I found it hard to believe, and I saw it.” He knelt down and started to set up camp.
She continued tapping her message, he left hand darting around the interface on the prothetic. “Well, he’ll get his clarification. We only just started this and I already almost got killed. I’ll let him know that too.”
Rick paused in his work. “I’ve been meaning to ask something ever since Royce left the room, back in the meeting room. Why did the CBI give you all your… stuff?” He sat down on a nearby boulder, and waited for her to finish typing her message. Once she had finished, she looked at him.
“Look, you’re in my good books for saving my life. Down here, you learn to trust people willing to risk their neck for you, and you’ve got that going for you.” She flexed her mechanical fingers, before slipping them back into her glove. “I would tell you if I knew. All I know is they saved my life with this stuff. In return, I’m doing what they told me to do: find what attacked me.” Her eyes glassed over a little, as if she were lost in a memory. After a couple of seconds, she shook her head and started setting up her part of the camp.
“That’s it?” That’s all you know?”
“That’s all I know.”
This frustrated Rick. He was hoping that she had more information on why the CBI would send her here, or hire him for that matter. The CBI could send in a properly equipped research team and deal with the issue easily enough. Even if the operation attracted some sort of unwanted attention, the CBI had more than enough clout to reduce the impact of bad media coverage. They had no need to be secret about it, and spend a fairly large amount on equipping a young woman with the single most sophisticated robotic arm he’d ever seen.
“Damnit,” he muttered. He then continued working.
The second message Royce got was far more informative, but even more confusing. In it, the woman had explained the events that had befallen her and the hunter. The overall result was comforting, as it seemed that the two of them were capable of handling unforeseen dangers. The details, however, disturbed him greatly. That her arm and throat were missing due to an alleged mutant attack bothered him, but a living forest? That indicated a massive amount of mutation, not just in the number of organisms affected but the degree to which they were transformed. Trees, passive ones, becoming active predators? It was unheard of in such a short period of time. Royce realized he was not the resident biology expert, but he knew that much change was, if not impossible, then incredibly improbable.
He wrote an update to the people in charge of the old Toronto observation team, and copied the head of biology to the messages. With that done, he got back to work on his new project. Opening up the coding window on his computer, he promptly got back to debugging the software he had been building. If he was lucky, he’d be done in a couple of hours.
End of Part 7