by Ronald Linson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The third day of the tour dawned with another lively Taylor family discussion. I did my best to ignore it, even though the others seemed to find it entertaining.
Apparently, Zack Taylor wanted to go home. Again. If only his parents would agree, I’d finish my coffee and we’d be off.
But no. What put an end to the argument was Millie Jones and Alisha Razak making their grand entrance in midriff-baring camisoles and immodestly tight short shorts, Millie in pastel blue and Alisha in pastel green.
The girls got their food and found their seats. Zack stared at them the whole while, neglecting his meal. Even his little brother Brandon, who I thought too young, seemed interested in a confused sort of way.
Actually, things were going to get ugly real quick. Jiggly young eye candy trumps French toast and pancakes every time, and the girls held the undivided attention of every male in the room, and so Darlene Taylor and Edna Kendall were less than pleased that their husbands were thus distracted.
Before they could do more than glare, I stood and rapped a spoon against the steel tabletop. “Okay, everyone,” I said, “today we’re going to a place called the Cotton Candy Forest. We’ll go in about an hour, so get dressed and suited up.” I shot the two sexpots a pointed look, chugged the rest of my coffee, and went to follow my own advice.
This time I was careful to choose a piece of ground obviously bereft of obstacles on which to land. It was on a small rise some distance from the edge of the forest, affording a spectacular view of the trees.
In this region, due to the vagaries of the environment or whatever, the coral had formed itself into graceful curving approximations of trunks and branches, and like your typical carbon-based trees, foliage. But unlike most carbon-based foliage, it resembled puffy pink clouds of spun sugar, hence the name.
Our boots crunched as we hiked along. I used the opportunity to relate some fun facts and statistics about the Cotton Candy Forest and answer questions.
“If you look closely,” I said as we approached the first tree, “you’ll see that the cotton candy is actually coral forming branches in miniature.”
“Excuse me,” Frank Kendall said. “What do you think of the possibility that different species or subspecies of microbe account for the wide variety of forms it exhibits?”
“That’s an interesting idea,” I said. “It’s definitely worth looking into.”
He smiled. “Maybe I’ll write a paper, assuming the Colonization Board lets me.”
“I don’t see why not,” I said. “I’ll put in a good word.”
“Hey,” Brandon Taylor said, “I got a science project coming up. Do you think I could—”
“Yeah, right,” his brother snorted. “You better stick to models of exo-DNA molecules, or better yet, growing a bunch of bean sprouts.”
Brandon lunged for his brother. His mother caught him and led him away. Leonard Taylor took Zack by the arm and pulled him in the opposite direction.
“Okay,” I said to the remaining members of the group, “we’ll meet back at the shuttle in two hours. Have fun.”
The cotton candy coral did weird things to the sunlight passing through it. I held a hand under one puff, and it was like my glove was coated with brilliantly sparkling glitter. I did the same under another, with the result being completely different: blue and yellow dots. A third puff produced wavy red and purple lines.
I wandered from tree to tree, putting my hand under the puffs I could reach, each time finding a unique effect. Maybe it would make a good subject for Brandon Taylor’s science project. The next time I—
A scream. Startled, I staggered backward, snapping branches off the tree behind me. Another scream, followed by shouts for help. The suit’s emergency transceiver activated with a beep, and loud static and garbled voices were all that came through.
“What happened? What’s going on?” I responded.
More static and garbled responses, most of which sounded like everyone trying to talk over each other all at once. What the hell? I couldn’t think straight with all the noise washing over me. I used the override to turn my suit’s transceiver off, something I did not tell the group how to do.
Sounds echoed strangely in the Cotton Candy Forest. Other shouts answered the first, and I couldn’t tell where any of them were coming from. I hurried down the widest paths, cursing Wallace with every step for including cheap, crappy comm gear in the suits.
Several twists and turns later, I still hadn’t found anyone. “Stay where you are,” I bellowed. “Let me find you.”
I came across Leonard and Zack Taylor first.
“What happened?” we all asked at once.
“Did you see anybody?” I asked.
They shook their heads.
“I think they’re over there,” Zack said, pointing.
It wasn’t long before I saw Frank and Edna Kendall as well as Darlene and Brandon Taylor through the trees. They were in a great deal of distress, and instead of trying to find a way around, I started snapping off branches.
When we got close enough, the cause of their distress was evident: Edna’s right hand was a bloody mess.
* * *
“These gloves are shit,” I cried, slapping a shredded and bloody example onto the desk.
Wallace barely glanced at it. “They are designed to provide adequate protection against ultraviolet radiation.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Fine, but they’re worthless for protection against sharp objects. I mean, look at this:” I pulled an undamaged glove from my pocket, grasped two of its fingers in each hand and yanked. It tore easily, too easily, like tissue paper.
Wallace shrugged, which made me want to throttle him.
“You’re lucky,” I said, “the woman who wore that glove is going to be okay. Her injuries looked a lot worse than they actually were. Even so, I think she might still sue.”
He smiled in that unpleasant way of his. “As I see it,” he said, “you were responsible for her safety, were you not? You should have warned your group not to touch the coral.”
“How was I supposed to know the stuff was razor sharp? None of the material you gave me mentioned it. And it didn’t help that the suit transceivers are garbage, too.”
Wallace raised an eyebrow. “Garbage? What do you mean?”
“I mean,” I said, leaning into his personal space, “they didn’t work. We got nothing but static and garbled transmissions.”
Wallace frowned, brows knit in thought. “They weren’t working in the Cotton Candy Forest?”
A tablet appeared in his hands. I’d forgotten I was talking to a hologram. He studied it for a few moments, then looked up.
“You do know,” he said, making the tablet disappear, “that the coral is radio reflective?”
Wallace smiled that smarmy smile I desperately wanted to punch. “It means that the transceivers’ signals won’t propagate in the Cotton Candy Forest. They will be reflected and re-reflected such that coherent reception is impossible there.”
“And you’re going to tell me I should have known that, too?” I asked.
“It is a guide’s responsibility to understand the nature of the environment into which they bring their group.”
I kicked the desk. The crack of splitting wood made me feel a little better. “This might be a new operation, but it seems to me this whole bit is half-assed. You don’t strike me as an incompetent boob, so what’s the deal?”
He shrugged again. “I’ve done the best I can with the budget I was given.”
I stared at him. What infuriated me the most was that I couldn’t tell if he was lying. It was entirely possible that the Colonization Board, like other governmental agencies, was miserly with its budgets. Without seeing it for myself, I had to take his word for it.
“When this tour is over, I’m done,” I said, and walked out.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Ronald Linson