Chapter 8:- The Search
The vine refused to release her. Murray twisted, and its sticky tendrils only gripped her hair all the tighter.
“Hold still,” Rook said. He unwound the green wire encircling her thigh.
“It’s trying to eat me.”
“If you stop moving, I think I can get you out.”
“There’s some in her hair,” Zora added helpfully from her perch on a nearby stump.
Murray growled, but stopped fidgeting and let Rook sort out the tangle. His cool fingers plucked a creeping tendril from her cheek and went to work on the ones in her hair.
“I think we’ve almost got it,” he said.
A few more fumbles around her head, and the plant’s grip went slack. Murray fell forward and took three quick steps away from the foliage. She reached down and rubbed at her thigh.
“That’s better.” Rook said.
“Right. Thank you.” Murray lifted her hand-held and punched the scan button. She’d managed to pluck a small sample before the plant attacked her. “Carnivorous plants?” She watched the scanner screen blink it’s “working” message and tapped one foot. The results flashed a bright green: negative. “Nope,” she said. “Though I beg to differ where that one’s concerned.”
“You just got too close,” Zora said. “If you’d stop fiddling with that thing and stay in the center of the track…”
“I’ve already got enough slime on my shoes, thank you.”
“We need to find Neela.”
“Doctor Murray,” Rook interjected quickly. “Perhaps I could carry you.”
“It might save time if we stayed away from the plants. If you’re concerned about your shoes…”
“I, no. Thank you. I’ll just deal with the goo.”
“Great,” Zora said. “Can we go now?”
Zora led the way. She strode along the swath of slug debris without a speck of dirt on her. Every fifty feet she’d stop, scan the jungle to either side and call to her mollusk. Murray followed behind her, keeping equidistant from the thick jungle to either side of the trail. She held the computer unit in front of her and waved it slowly back and forth. “Quicksand,” she said and hit the scan button. “No.”
“Do you have to do that? You’re freaking me out?”
“Zora, we need to know as much as we can about this place.”
“Fine. Try snakes.”
“What?” Murray froze and stared at the branches over her head. “Why?”
“It just seems like a great place to be a snake.”
“Funny.” She continued, but whispered to the unit, “Snakes.”
Rook made a noise behind her. He’d suggested bringing up the rear in case anything happened to be following them. The idea had been unanimously agreed upon.
“Nope,” she said. Another idea struck her. “Venomous animals,” she said and waited. “No.”
“I think its opening up ahead,” Zora called back.
“Giant insects.” Murray looked up and tried to see an end to the jungle. The hand-held beeped. “No.”
“Doctor Murray?” Rook hurried up beside her. “I believe your sister may be correct.”
They walked together, Murray watching the mesh of branches overhead intently, and Rook’s heavy feet making gentle splishing sounds as he trod through Neela’s wake. A few paces further and Murray could see larger patches of sky breaking through the canopy. A glance to her left supported Zora’s claim. The flora had definitely thinned considerably, though it still looked hostile.
“There’s water,” Zora called. “I can see a lake.” She broke into an overly sultry jog.
“Wait, Zor!” Murray walked faster, but her sister flashed in and out of view as the trail wandered serpentine style. “Crap.”
“Come on.” Before she could protest, Rook scooped her up. He held her cradled to his metal chest and broke into a run.
Murray clutched her computer in one hand and quickly wrapped the other around Rook’s neck. Her legs dangled over his arm and she bounced along in mid-air. “Hey,” she said. The jungle blurred into a green smear and she closed her eyes against a flutter of nausea.
They caught Zora at the edge of an open expanse. A slope of thick gray grass fell away from the jungle’s edge to meet the flat surface of the lake. Beside it, a gigantic pink slug quivered and munched on a mouthful of shiny leaves.
“Neela!” Zora squeaked and took off at a run.
“We found the beast,” Rook said.
“Oh joy.” Murray shifted in his arms, and he set her back on her feet. She smoothed at her pants and watched Zora patting the slug while pale green splatters of drool rained to either side of her. “Yuck.”
They walked down to the lake, and Murray eliminated sea monsters and acidic hot springs from her list of the planet’s potential dangers. Zora grinned at them and took two steps toward the lake.“Wait,” Murray said.
“You don’t know what that is!”
“It’s a lake.”
“Fine. What is it?”
Murray stood up straighter and marched to the edge of the grass. She aimed the scanner at the lake’s surface and pushed a few buttons. The lights flashed. She waited. The machine beeped.
“Well,” Zora said. “What is it?”
Murray tucked the hand-held into her jacked pocket and set her shoulders back firmly. “It’s water,” she announced.
“God, Mur.” Zora knelt at the shore and scooped up a handful of water. She drank it, then eyed Murray critically. “You should bathe,” she said. “You’re filthy.”
Murray slid out of her ruined lab coat and glared at her sister. She rolled her eyes sideways and raised her eyebrows to indicate Rook.
“I don’t think he’d mind,” Zora said.
She did have mud caked along her arms. She turned to the android. He had his back to them, scanned the sky and the jungle edges intently.
“He’s just an android, right, Mur?”
“Shut up.” She shed her boots and rolled her pants legs up above her knees. Wading a few steps into the water, she rubbed at the dried mud on her calves and splashed the chilly liquid over her arms and face. Not exactly a bath, but it would have to do. The cold felt amazing on her scratched and bruised skin, and without the thick canopy, warm sunlight fell around them.
When she’d finished, Murray stepped back across the grass to where Zora lounged on her side. The slug had finished its snack and seemed content and unlikely to bolt again. Murray turned to her coat. The arms gaped in spots where the wreckage had torn through them, but she ignored the damage and beat as much of the mud as possible from the garment.
“Doctor Murray?” Rook joined them and sat down on the grass. “Perhaps we should consider setting up camp.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” she said. “I’m exhausted. There’s water here, and we could use some of the friendlier branches to construct shelter.”
“I don’t think it’s safe here.” Zora stood and sidled up to her.
“No,” Murray said. “That’s one of the first things I checked.”
She started to argue, but Rook jumped to his feet. Zora was staring at the jungle over Murray’s shoulder, and a creepy feeling wandered down her spine. “No,” she said. “I checked.”
She didn’t want to turn around, but they both fixed their gazes on a point somewhere behind her, and she couldn’t stand the pressure. Sure enough, hostile natives. They’d stepped from the jungle without sound and now they formed a wall of half naked, tanned flesh. Murray did a quick count and sighed. Each of the loincloth clad figures held a spear tipped with twin points that glistened more like steel than stone. Not that it mattered. They were vastly outnumbered.
She shook her head. “It’s one of the first things I checked,” she said.
“Maybe they’re not hostile,” Rook offered. He stepped forward and the spears shifted in unison to pinpoint his position.
“And maybe that gadget’s broken,” Zora said.
Murray touched the pocket holding her scanner. She looked from Zora to Rook to the tight faces of the men crouching behind the spears. “Right,” she said. What the hell? She stiffened her spine and marched directly for the closest natives. The spears diverted to target her. Rook and Zora called in unison.
She stopped and spread her arms wide. “I mean you no harm,” she shouted. “I’m a doctor!”