Will and Judy had packed up their remaining food and water and headed into the tunnel at the rear of the cavern. Will was feeling much better and the exercise was helping him get his strength back. Judy made them stop to rest and drink water often though, and was constantly asking her brother how he felt.
They had decided if they didn’t find a way out within twelve hours, they would turn back, not wanting to risk getting too far from the cave when John and Don came to get them. They hoped they might at least be able to find a place where they could get radio reception and let the family know they were okay.
Most of the tunnel was easy to walk through, though some sections were so narrow they had to turn sideways to squeeze past. They saw no other signs of life. The four steps, chiseled into the cliff leading up to the cave, was the only sign this planet had been inhabited sometime in the distant past.
They had walked for almost eight hours when the tunnel came to an abrupt stop in front of a solid wall.
“Do you think there was a rock fall that blocked it?” Judy asked.
“Maybe,” Will answered. “But it doesn’t look like it. It looks like it just ends. It’s weird.”
“Will, look.” Judy was shining her light all around the walls, and could see nothing, but when she lowered it, she saw there was a small opening on the tunnel floor next to the side.
They walked over and shined their lights into it. “Steps,” Will said. “Just like at the cave entrance.”
“I’m not sure we should go down there,” Judy said.
“It’s only been eight hours, and this is our only option,” Will argued. Then he caught himself. He knew that it was his decision to continue to work on the weather station that had almost gotten them both killed. “But you decide Judy. If you think we should turn around its okay with me.”
She looked down it for a few seconds. “Let’s take it for a while, but if it doesn’t seem like it leads out, we’ll turn around.”
Will started to step down into the opening.
“No, I’ll go first,” Judy said.
“I’m going first, Will, don’t argue.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, and he took a step back.
“Be careful, Judy.”
“I will.” She stepped into the opening. It was not very wide, and as she began to descend, she looked up at her brother. “It’s steep, so use the walls to brace yourself.”
“Okay.” As soon as Judy had stepped far enough down, Will began to follow her.
They descended the steps for an hour. They twisted and turned and remained steep. If it hadn’t been that the walls were so close, it would have been a dangerous path, but they braced their hands against the sides to steady themselves. Judy stopped several times to drink and check on Will. She was worried that this was too much activity for him, but he seemed to be fine.
“Hey Will,” Judy said. “I see light.”
“Light?” He looked past her. “There is light. How is there light down here?”
“I hear noises,” Judy said. She took the laser pistol out of the holster. “Stay behind me, Will.”
The boy smiled to himself. She was really protecting him. About the time he turned twelve or thirteen, she had stopped watching over him like she did when he was much younger. Other adults were around them all the time now, so she became much more of an older sister than a surrogate parent when his mom and dad weren’t around. Now he was remembering what she was like when he was much younger, before they left for space. He found he liked it.
Finally the steps ended and the tunnel opened up. The two of them just stood looking without speaking.
Finally Judy said, “How can this be?”
“I don’t know,” Will said, “But Robot is going to be happy when we tell him he was right. If we ever get back.”
Judy looked at him sharply. “You mean, when we get back, Will.”
He looked back at her. “Yeah.”
They stepped out of the tunnel into a tropical jungle. There were towering trees with vines twisting and turning everywhere. Lush green plants and flowers of every color of the rainbow. There were birds in the trees, and butterflies and other insects all about.
“How can this be?” Judy repeated.
“There’s no sun,” Will said. “The lighting looks…wow.”
Judy looked up and saw what had surprised him. High above the trees, the sky was a mixture of blue and white hues wrapped around hundreds of orbs and other shapes, as if the light was being reflected through a multi-leveled, glass prism.
“It’s beautiful!” Judy exclaimed.
“Yeah,” Will agreed. “Its like we’re inside a…”
“Blue diamond,” Judy said.
He looked at her and smiled. “Well, I was going to say an ice cave. I’ve seen photo’s like this of them in Iceland.”
“Do you think it’s artificial?”
”Maybe someone built all of this. But I think the sun is being reflected through the ice. Part of it must be thin enough that light can filter through. If it was thicker it would deflect more of it. It would be dark down here like any cave. This jungle wouldn’t be possible.”
“But where does the water come from?” Judy asked. “I mean, this looks like a rain forest.”
“I don’t know, but it’s incredible.”
“Will there’s a path,” Judy said. She was looking past the trees that were immediately in front of the opening to the tunnel. “I guess we only have two choices, go back up the steps, or see where that path goes.”
They just looked at each other for a second. Then Judy smiled. “Okay.”
Will smiled back at her. He was afraid she would say to go back the way they had come. But he was feeling better and now his sense of adventure had returned and this whole thing was amazing. He started to step into the trees to cross over to the path.
“No, you follow me, Will.” Judy stepped in front of him and into the jungle.
Will smiled again and followed her.
“Do you hear anything?” He asked.
“Yeah. Like hissing or something,” she said.
“Look, it’s the plants.” He stepped on one and heard a very slight hiss, as if air was being let out of a tire.
“That’s so weird,” Judy said. She knelt down and pulled a leaf off a tiny, green plant. It emitted a very low hissing sound. “I don’t know why it does that, but let’s try not to step on them.”
They walked carefully until they were on the sandy path. “This isn’t old like those steps,” Will said. “People are using this now. Or something is.”
“Yeah, let’s keep our eyes open.”
They followed the sandy trail through the jungle for several kilometers, keeping a careful look out. Other than the hundreds of birds and butterflies and insects, they saw no life forms except trees and plants. They stopped several times and tried the radio, but they could get no reception.
“Hey Judy, notice something?” Will asked when they stopped to eat. He was looking up into the sky.
“It’s getting darker,” She said.
“Yeah. I think we’re right. This is reflected sunlight. And the temperature’s perfect. Seventy two degrees. Like we’re inside a cave.”
“I think we need to stop for the night,” Judy said. “But not on the path. Let’s move into the trees a little so if whoever or whatever uses this comes by it won’t stumble across us.”
They found a small sandy area in the jungle and dropped their packs. “It’s too nice for sleeping bags,” Will said. He had rolled his out on the ground and stretched out on top of it, using his backpack for a pillow. Judy told him she would stay awake and be on watch.
“When are you going to wake me for my turn?” He asked.
“I can handle it,” she said.
“Judy, it’s really nice that you’re taking such good care of me, but that doesn’t make sense. You need to rest too. We don’t know how long we are going to be in this…whatever it is. You need your strength too.”
“Okay, Will. You’re right. I’ll wake you in a few hours and we can switch, okay?”
“Sounds good,” Will said. He was soon fast asleep.
Judy sat and looked at him for a while. He looked like a little boy again, like when she used to babysit him at night. She sighed. The last four years had changed them all so much. But she knew the changes her brother and sister had gone through were much more than she had to deal with. She was nineteen when they left Earth, still young, but at least she had gone through all the challenges of adolescence. She knew it had to be tough for her brother and sister. She smiled. Watching her little brother sleep peacefully made it seem like they were back home, and he had fallen asleep on the living room floor watching a movie. Not for the first time, she wished they were back there.
“Will! Wake up!”
He opened his eyes as soon as his sister yelled. He started to sit up, but he couldn’t. His hands and legs were bound. “Judy!”
“Will! Help me!”
He looked to his left where Judy had been. She was still there, sitting a meter from him but there was something on her.
“Judy I can’t move!” He said. “What’s wrong?”
“The plant! It’s wrapped around me!”
Then Will looked down at his body. His arms and legs were covered with vines. Or maybe it was one vine. “Me too Judy! I’m pinned down!”
His eyes were focusing in the dark better now. Judy was sitting up but her torso had a wide vine around it and there was another one around her shoulders and arms, pinning them to her sides. The laser gun was laying behind her.
“What happened? Did you fall asleep?” He asked.
“No! I was just sitting here. It happened quickly. I thought I heard something but before I could move it wrapped around my stomach and the other one wrapped around my arms. I couldn’t even hold the laser.”
“The vines moved that fast?”
“Yes. And you were fine until I yelled your name. I’ve been watching you. Those vines weren’t on you. You were lying there just like you were when you fell asleep. But as soon as I yelled they wrapped around you.”
“But…how could they…”
“Something’s coming, Will.”
He stopped talking and listened. She was right. There was rustling in the trees that seemed to be coming from all around them. They both started struggling hard against the vines, but they were trapped.
Then they were surrounded. They looked human. But like natives or a tribe of some kind. They all seemed to be carrying spears and other weapons. There were ten or twelve of them. They pointed their weapons at Will and Judy, leaned close and looked at them.
One of them touched Will’s face, running his fingers across it. “Judy!” Will yelled.
“Leave him alone!” Judy yelled. But then they were reaching for Judy as well.
“Don’t touch her!” Will shouted. They ignored the siblings demands, all of them poking them with their fingers, running hands through their hair. Smelling them.
“Stop it!” Will yelled. He heard his sister’s protests as well. “Leave her alone!”
Then they began talking to each other. The siblings couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the conversation was animated. Finally, they began gently removing the vines from their bodies, seeming to take care not to hurt the plant life. As they pulled the vines from Will’s arms he started struggling but they turned him to his stomach and bound his hands behind his back.
“Let me go!” Will yelled
Judy was struggling and trying to fight, but she had her hands bound behind her as well. Once both of them were on their stomachs and their hands tied, the people started going through their belongings, dumping the backpacks out, rummaging through their supplies and their extra clothes. They started struggling over everything until Will and Judy thought they were going to get in a fight, but eventually they seemed to reach some type of agreement about who got what.
Then Will and Judy were both pulled to their feet and a vine rope was placed around both their necks and looped together, Will in front. The man that seemed to be the leader took the end of the rope and tugged, pulling them back to the path. They led them the same direction they had been walking the day before.
“We’ll be okay Will,” Judy said.
“I know,” he answered. He didn’t know and neither did his sister, but there was little they could do about it.
It began to get light out. Now they could get a better look at their captors. Other than their dress, which was some type of homemade cloth, dyed in several different colors, and their language, they seemed to be human. But their skin tone had an odd color, as if they were slightly sunburnt, but more orange than pink or red. Their hair was all the same light brown.
“I think it’s our skin that they were looking at,” Will said to Judy. “And hair. We look different than they do.”
“Like they have too much carotenoids in their diet,” she answered.
Suddenly the man pulling them by the rope stopped and turned and raised his spear like he was going to strike Will across the face with the end of it. Will flinched, trying to turn his head away, but he couldn’t because of the rope around his throat. “No!” Judy yelled.
The man stopped. The spear was still raised but he was staring at Will closely. He said something low under his breath. Then they were all looking at the boy. The man that was pulling them lowered his spear and approached Will slowly. He tried to back away, but the man tugged the rope, keeping him in place.
“No! Don’t touch him!” Judy yelled. She took a step forward toward her brother but one of the others grabbed her and kept her in place.
The man approached Will, lifted his hand, and touched the boy’s head. Then the others were surrounding him. He was trying to back away, but he couldn’t.
“Will. Don’t move,” Judy said. “It’s your hair I think. It’s almost the color they are. I think that’s what it is. They couldn’t see it in the dark like they could mine.”
They were all just running their hands over his head and touching his hair. “Okay Judy this is really weird,” he said.
“I know. Just don’t move.”
After several minutes, they were pulled along. They traveled this way for several more hours, then Will said, “Judy, there’s a village ahead.”
The path opened up into a small group of huts that looked to be made of adobe or some other material. Even the roofs. They were surrounded, more and more villagers rushing out to see them. At first they seemed interested in both kids, but as soon as they noticed Will’s hair all of the attention went to him. There were fifty or sixty men and women, then dozens of children started hurrying toward them. Again, as soon as they saw Will’s hair they all went to him and started touching it.
“Don’t move, Will,” Judy said. “They aren’t hurting you.”
“I know. I know. I’m trying,” he said.
All of the villagers had the same, slightly orange skin tone. Most of them looked to be in excellent shape with toned muscles and sturdy frames. Even the older villagers. The children seemed friendly and even the men who had captured them seemed to relax now that they were in the village. The one who had been leading them brought Will water and held it for him to drink. Will said, “Give my sister a drink please.” When the man just stared back at him Will nodded with his head toward Judy, and the man took the meaning and held it for her to drink too.
“I think we’re going to be okay, Judy,” Will said.
“It’s your hair I think,” She said. “It might have saved us.”
Then someone shouted. Everyone looked back toward the village where another man was standing, watching everything. This guy looked different. He was tall and must have weighed over three hundred pounds, with layers of fat rolling off him. And his skin had the same orange tone to it, but it was a shade darker than the all the others. He shouted something else, and the man who had been leading them by the rope yelled something at him.
The large man began walking toward them. He looked unhappy. Some of the villagers began edging away, but the man who had led them by the rope stayed where he was. He actually took a step between Will and Judy and this big man.
When they were a meter apart they began arguing. The large man kept looking at Will and pointing and saying something, sounding angrier. But the much smaller man seemed to have no fear of him and raised his voice as well. He was half the size of this large man, who Will began thinking of as a chief.
Judy took a step up until she was next to Will. “Just stay calm, this is between them.”
“I know, but I think it’s about me,” Will said.
“It’ll be okay Will.”
Finally the big man walked past the other one and stood in front of Will, looking down at him. He was frowning. He put a hand up and Will flinched. The big man stopped, and his expression became something between a grin and a snarl.
“Calm Will,” Judy said.
“I’m trying,” He whispered.
The man put his hand up again, and placed it on top of Will’s head. He left it there, then turned and said something in a loud voice to the villagers. The other man took a step toward him and said something back. Suddenly the big man gripped Will’s hair in his fist and began lifting him off his feet.
“No!” Will yelled
Judy ran into the man, but her hands were behind her back and he just brushed her aside and tossed her to the ground.
Then the one who had led them there grabbed the big man’s arm, and Will was released and dropped to the ground beside Judy.
The Chief spun around and threw a powerful fist at the smaller man, but he caught only air as the other man ducked the punch then drove his head under the Chief’s chin. Then he was on him with fists so fast the much larger man was driven back. Finally the Chief said something and put his hands in the air, and the fight stopped. There was blood dripping from his nose and his lips were swelling. As soon as it was over, the smaller man turned toward Will and Judy and smiled slightly and started walking toward them.
“I think this is good,” Judy said.
The man reached down and grabbed each of them by an elbow and helped them up, but just as they got to their feet a spear came through his chest and he spit blood out his mouth and crumpled to the ground.
A gasp went up from the villagers and the Chief was standing in front of Will and Judy over the crumpled body of his adversary. He looked at the siblings and smiled. Then he turned to the villagers and began speaking. When he was finished several of their captors rushed up and grabbed Will and Judy and pulled them through the village and down the path they had been on. The villagers all followed them.
They came to a clearing, the trees surrounding it grew close together, giving the impression they were inside a small fortress. In the center was another tree, though this looked different than anything they had seen before. It towered over the rest of the jungle, reaching over fifty meters in height, and its trunk must have been ten meters in diameter. But it was the limbs that were so strange. They started three or four meters from the bottom, and wrapped around the trunk and entangled each other; thick fibrous ropes, winding around and around until they looked like a mass of serpents trying to feed off each other.
Will and Judy were pushed to the edge of the clearing and into some of the trees surrounding it, and held there. They looked at each other wondering what was going to happen when they felt vines encircle them. “Judy!” Will yelled.
They were close together and Judy reached out and took her brother by the hand. They were immobile now, vines encircling their legs and torsos, pinning them tightly to the trunks of the trees.
They heard cries and screams coming down the path. More villagers were coming, and they had other captives. There was a teenage girl near Penny’s age and another girl who might have been ten or eleven. They looked different than the villagers, their skin brown, and black hair hung in braids down their backs.
They were crying as they were being dragged into the clearing, then they were pushed up against trees next to Will and Judy. The teenage girl was put on the other side of Judy and the younger girl next to Will, and held until the vines encircled them and held them fast.
Now the villagers had all gathered into the center of the clearing. The big man stood next to the huge tree. He spoke to the villagers, pointing at the captives, then pointing at the tree. When he was done he walked over to where the four prisoners were and stood next to Will. He said something else, and pointed at Will then at himself. When he stopped talking the villagers started shouting.
The Chief walked up to the little girl and stared at her. Will turned and looked at the girl’s face. She wasn’t moving. Just staring back at the big man. But Will saw she was trembling. He didn’t know what was about to happen, but this girl seemed to.
Then the Chief walked up to Will. He said something else and the villagers laughed. Then he stopped in front of Judy before walking on to the teenage girl at the end. He stopped, said one word, and several natives ran up and began gently removing the vines from around her. The girl was crying and as soon as she was released she dropped to her knees and looked up at the Chief and started talking and crying harder. Will and Judy could tell she was pleading.
Two of the villagers picked her up by the arms and dragged her into the center of the clearing in front of the big tree, and dropped her to her knees. The Chief stood behind her, turned to the tribe and said a few words, then turned and looked down at the girl.
The girl was still on her knees, now looking up at the tree as the limbs began moving. Then they reached for her. A dozen or more of them wrapped around her arms and legs and torso and lifted her and pulled her up off the ground and then snug against the trunk. Then they squeezed.
“Will, don’t watch!” Judy said. “Will.”
He turned his head to his sister. He had a look of shock on his face. The girl’s screams were blood curdling, and Will could hear what the tree was doing to her. There was a breaking, cracking sound, and what he thought was a sucking or slurping.
“Keep looking at me Will,” Judy said.
But the boy thought of the little girl. He didn’t know how she was related to the other girl, but she looked like just a smaller version of her. He turned his head to look at the child, bound to the tree beside him. When he did he got a glimpse of the tree where it held the teenage girl. The screams had stopped, and Will saw she was covered with blood, and it looked as if a limb of the tree was encompassing her entire head. He quickly focused on the little girl beside him. She was staring at the tree. “Hey,” Will said. “Hey.”
The girl turned and looked at him. Her eyes were wide and there was a sheen of sweat on her skin and she was just shaking. Will reached his hand out and took hers and started talking to the girl in a soothing voice. She started to turn her head back to the tree and Will said, “No. look at me.” She didn’t understand his words, but turned back to Will and he kept talking to her. This time she just kept looking at him.
Judy watched all of this and it dawned on her how strong her little brother was. He was just thirteen and they all knew he was a genius, but now Judy saw him as much more. In the most horrific moment of his short life, he focused on comforting someone else.
The horrible sounds had stopped. The chief started speaking again and the captives looked back at the tree. There was nothing left of the teenage girl, except streaking blood that now covered the trunk where she had been held, and a wide, red pool at the foot of it.
When the chief stopped talking he walked back over to the captives but this time he stopped in front of Will. He looked at him and his whole face seemed to curl into a sneer and he quietly gave an order while looking directly in Will’s eyes. Three of the Villagers hurried up and started removing the vines from around his body.
“No!” Judy said. “Take me!”
She shouted over and over again, “No! No! Leave him alone. Take me! Take me!” The Chief ignored her, and Judy looked over to her brother. He was silent but his eyes were big, and he was pale.
Finally Judy gathered as much phlegm as she could and spit it at the chief. It hit him in the side of the face and ran down. He turned to Judy. He slowly wiped his face, then barked another order to the villagers and they stopped pulling the vines from Will.
They moved over to Judy and began removing the vines from her body. “No!” Will yelled. “Don’t take her.” The chief looked at him and smiled. “Let her go!” Will said. “Me! Me! Look at my hair!”
Judy was free now and they were dragging her to the tree. As they pulled her past her brother she said, “It’s okay Will. It’s okay. Don’t watch. Turn your head.” Then, “I love you Will.”
“I love you Judy!” He yelled and watched in horror as they dragged her to the tree and pushed her to her knees. Then Will felt something touch his hand and he turned, and the little girl had reached out and taken it and she was talking to him in a soothing voice. Will looked at her and tried to focus on her, but he heard the sounds the tree had made before. He looked at it and saw the limbs once again unraveling.
The girl was still talking to him in a calm voice and he looked back at her and tried to focus on her face, but he heard Judy scream and he turned his attention to his sister. The limbs had wrapped themselves around her now and were lifting her in the air and pulling her in.
“No!” Will screamed. Now he was crying. “Please stop!” He shouted. “Take me! Take me!”
Then he yelled, “I love you Judy!” He didn’t know if she could hear him or not. Her feet were a meter off the ground, she was now held tight against the trunk, and the limbs were squeezing her.
The little girl was still talking to Will, and her grip had tightened on his hand, but he couldn’t take his eyes off his sister. As he watched, tears running down his face, his mouth opened in horror, the huge tree seem to catch on fire high above Judy’s head. Then Will heard the unmistakable sounds of laser rifles coming from the jungle. Blast after blast hit the big tree’s branches. The Villagers were all panicking now, most of them running back down the path toward the village, some just running into the jungle. Will saw the chief’s huge body disappear into the trees.
He looked back at Judy. The tree had dropped her, and she was lying at the base of it now. “Judy!” Will yelled, but she didn’t respond. “Judy!”
Then he saw his dad and Don step out of the jungle, each carrying laser rifles. “Dad!” He yelled.
He saw his father say something to Don and the Major ran over to Will while John went to check on Judy. Don grabbed him by the arms, “Are you hurt Will?”
“No, but Judy…”
“Brace yourself,” Don said. Then he began firing the laser into the tree above his head. The vines immediately released him.
As soon as he was free Will turned to the little girl, but he didn’t have to tell Don what to do, the Major had already turned his attention on that tree and opened fire above the girl’s head. As soon as she was free she disappeared into the jungle without a word.
Will and Don ran to where John was kneeling over Judy. Her eyes were closed but she was breathing. They gathered around her and Will dropped to his knees by her head. “Judy! Judy!” He was touching her face gently.
She opened her eyes and looked up. “Will!” She reached for him and the brother and sister held each other and cried.
“Are you hurt Judy?” her father asked.
“I’m sore but I don’t think I’m injured.”
“We better get out of here, then.” John and Will helped her up. Don had his back turned now, looking down the path and scanning the jungle.
When Judy was on her on her feet John hugged her and held her for a few seconds.
“We need to leave,” Don said. “There’s movement in the jungle.”
“We can’t go back the way we came,” John said. “Let’s go this way and see if we can circle the village and get back to the cave.”
“I think we need to do one more thing first Doc,” Don said, looking at the big tree.
“I’m with you. Judy, Will, move back.”
Judy grabbed Will’s hand and pulled him away from the tree. Don and John backed up a couple of meters, looked at each other, and John said, “Let’s light it up.”
They opened fire with both lasers, starting high at the top, then making their way down. As the laser blasts struck the limbs they heard a loud hissing sound and the branches began to frantically twist and curl. They worked their way down the tree until they got to the thick trunk and both focused their fire on the center of it. Now the entire tree was ablaze, the burning limbs twisting faster and faster this way and that until they began turning to ash and dropping all around the smoldering trunk. The hissing sounds of the dying tree grew louder and louder.
A spear landed in front of Don’s feet, coming from somewhere back in the jungle toward the village. He quickly turned and opened fire and John joined him. Then they ran over to Will and Judy. Judy was still clutching her brother’s hand, standing by the edge of the forest.
“This way,” John said, leading them into the trees.
“I’ll watch our back,” Don said. He opened fire again and there were two screams just past the tree line where he fired.
John led them deeper and deeper into the trees. They would stop every few minutes, John raising his hand for them all to be quiet, then they would look back behind them to see if the Villagers had stopped following. But each time, they would catch glimpses of the warriors moving quickly and silently toward them.
They stopped again after an hour of this, and listened closely. “I think we lost them,” Don said.
“Yeah, but we may have lost ourselves too,” John said.
“Will, you okay?” Judy asked. Her brother hadn’t spoken since they left the clearing. She had not stopped holding his hand the entire time. “Will?”
“Oh…yeah. I’m okay.”
Judy and her father shared a look. They weren’t sure they believed him.
“Down,” Don yelled.
Judy pulled Will to the ground and their father and Don jumped down in front of them as spears started landing all about, one of them barely missing Don. As soon as the spears stopped coming Don and John started firing lasers into the jungle. They heard a couple of screams but they couldn’t tell how much damage they had done.
“Let’s go!” John said and he grabbed Will by the shirt and pulled him up as Judy stood with him.
“I’ll lead, but we’re moving fast, we need to put distance between us and them.” He started off through the trees, moving quickly but carefully, scanning the jungle in front of them.
They rushed through the forest this way for almost an hour, not stopping to rest until they thought they were far enough from the tribe to risk it.
They all jumped down behind a cluster of thick trees that were surrounded by bushes. “Everyone drink water,” Don said.
Judy pulled a canteen out and handed it to her brother. He just looked back at her for a few seconds without taking it. “Will, are you okay?” Judy asked.
“Yeah. Oh. Sorry.” He took the canteen and drank and handed it back to Judy.
“See anything Don?” John asked. Don had stayed a meter or two behind them, scanning the jungle slowly.
“No, maybe they finally gave up.”
“Dad, do we know where we are?” Judy asked.
“Instruments don’t work down here. I’m just guessing. We need to start working our way back around to get to the cave entrance.”
“What’s it like up there?” Judy asked.
“Warming. No longer subarctic, but it was still covered in ice when we left yesterday. We melted the ice sheet in front of the cave with lasers to get in. It was like a mini ice age. Covering everything and killing everything.”
“Except down here,” Will said. It was the first words he had spoken other than responding to them asking how he was doing.
“Yeah,” John agreed. “This is unbelievable. I think it was designed by an intelligent race. They turned an uninhabitable planet into a habitable one.”
Don was looking all around, but when John said this he looked at him. He didn’t say anything, but the others could tell he was thinking.
“What about those people?” Judy asked.
“I don’t know,” Her father said. “Unless this was created so long ago they evolved like every species.”
“What about the tree?” Will said. “It was…evil.”
They all looked at him. They knew he was never going to forget this. “Plants that consume…protein…do it for the nutrients,” John said. “Normally nitrogen. On Earth they consume insects, though some are capable of trapping rodents and small animals. But the size of that tree…it needed something larger.”
He reached out and put a hand on Will’s shoulder. “It was probably like everything else here. The way the vines can trap you and hold you. A process of evolution. I doubt if it was evil.”
“It was evil,” Will repeated, a blank look on his face.
“Do you think there are more of them?” Judy asked. “They fed…they took a girl to it before me.”
“There’s no way to know,” John replied. “We have no idea how big this is. It could encompass the entire planet, under the surface. But we aren’t going to find out. We’re getting out of here as soon as we can.”
“There was something about Will’s hair,” Judy said. “I think because its red. They were surprised by my hair when they captured us at night. But as it got lighter and they saw Will’s they were amazed. It was the color of their skin, and I think that had something to do with it. But they weren’t all happy about it. The guy who was leading the ones that captured us seemed like he thought it was good. But that big guy…I think he was like a chief…he seemed furious. Maybe jealous. He killed the other man and that’s when they took us to the tree.”
“Yeah, my guess is there’s something in their diet to give them that sunburned, orange look,” John said. “Maybe they evolved that way too.”
“Not everyone here did,” Will said. He was thinking about the little girl and what he assumed was her sister. The teenager they had fed to the tree. He hoped the little girl had escaped.
And suddenly they were surrounded. The Villagers poured out of the trees from all sides, brandishing spears and clubs. One man thrust a spear at Will and Judy shoved him to the ground and John shot the man with his laser. Don and John opened fire all around, while Judy dropped on top of Will and covered his body.
“Let’s go,” John grabbed Will and Judy both and pulled them to their feet and ran into the bushes that surrounded the trees they had been hiding behind. The bushes were thick, and full of thorns that tore their clothing and pricked their skin as they made their way through them.
John stepped into another small clearing and was struck in the side of the head and fell to the ground. He dropped his laser and looked up to see who had struck him. It was the Chief, over three hundred pounds, sweat pouring from the layers of fat that covered his body, standing and glaring down at John, a club in his hand. He raised it high to strike him again, but John rolled out of the way just in time.
Don was firing all around. The natives had no weapons that could match the lasers, but there was so many of them, when some would die, others would take their place and they kept swarming from the trees.
John had immediately climbed to his feet when the Chief missed him with the club and hit the man with two quick jabs, then a hook to the ribs. The man was overweight, but he was strong, and the punches didn’t seem to faze him.
Finally John punched him in the throat. The huge man stumbled back, but regained his balance and stepped forward. Suddenly, a fiery burst hit him in the chest, opening a gaping hole. The Chief looked down at it in disbelief, dropped to his knees and fell forward.
John and Judy quickly turned to Will. He was on his knees, John’s laser in his hands. He was staring at the big man who was now face down on the ground.
The other attackers seemed to melt away into the trees.
“Will, give me the gun,” John said.
Will didn’t answer and he didn’t move. He was still staring at the dead Chief.
“Will,” Judy said. He still didn’t answer or acknowledge any of them.
John slowly walked over to him and knelt down and took the weapon from his hands. Will turned and hugged Judy and started crying.
“No signs of them,” Don said.
“Okay, we need to keep moving.” John looked at his children. They were still on their knees. Judy was still hugging Will, looking at John over his shoulder. “You got him, Judy?”
“Yes. Come on Will, we have to go.” She helped her brother to his feet, and took him by the hand.
“You ready, Will?” John asked, placing a hand on his shoulder. The boy nodded.
They continued on through the jungle, John leading once again, Judy holding Will’s hand, Don bringing up the rear. They stopped after another hour and sat down to rest. Will hadn’t said anything and just sat quietly, but he wouldn’t let go of Judy’s hand.
“Maybe killing their leader was enough to scare them off,” Don said. He had no sooner gotten the words out when a spear landed beside him. He opened fire again, John joining him.
“Let’s go!” John said, helping Judy pull Will to his feet and moving back into the jungle, the way they had been going. But after several meters, they found themselves surrounded by thick thorn bushes.
“It’s like the others, but thicker,” John said. “And the thorns are much longer. I don’t see a way through.”
“Well we better find one,” Don said. “They’re coming.” He opened fire again and John joined him.
John and Don were in front, Judy kneeling behind them, Will next to her, gripping her hand tightly, all of them looking back the way they had come.
“It seems like there are more and more,” Don yelled. “That village wasn’t this big. There has to be others.”
Then Will felt something grab his free hand. He quickly pulled away and spun around. The little girl was there, the one who had been pinned to the tree next to him. She motioned to Will like she wanted him to follow her.
“Dad,” Will yelled over the sounds of the laser blasts “Dad!”
John stopped firing and turned to his son. Will and Judy were both looking at the little girl now.
“She wants us to follow her,” Will said.
The girl rushed up to Will and grabbed his free hand again and began pulling him.
“Let’s follower her, Dad,” Judy said.
“Okay. Now. Let’s go.”
Will stood and the girl ran toward the thicket. “There’s no way through there,” Don said. But as soon as the little girl was next to them, she dropped to her hands and knees and started crawling. Will was behind her and did the same thing, then Judy.
“It looks like she knows where she’s going,” John said. He dropped to his hands and knees behind Judy and followed her in. Don looked around behind them, sprayed the jungle one more time with laser fire, then dropped and followed the others.
Once inside the thorn bushes, they saw what the girl was doing. About a meter up, the thorns grew, but down here, the branches were easy to push out of the way, and the girl was on what appeared to be a sandy path through them.
Will had no problems following her, but the others caught a few thorns on their backs. Still, it was relatively easy to pass under them.
They moved this way for almost an hour. Every few minutes the girl stopped and listened. Then she would look at Will and start back through the bushes.
Finally Will saw her stand, and he crawled up and out of the thicket then turned and took Judy’s hand and helped her to her feet. When he pulled Judy up he turned back to the girl. But he stopped and stared at what was in front of them, too surprised to talk.
As Don and John joined them, they were also silent. It was hard for them to believe what they were seeing. It was a vast body of water. The sky above it had the same beautiful blue and white hues streaking across, but the light that filtered through the ice above and shimmered across the water was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen.
Don walked to the edge, where there was a small sandy beach that seemed to go on forever around the edges of the water. “Can’t see the other side,” he said. He knelt and put his fingers in the water, then put them to his mouth. He turned and smiled at John. “Saline,” he said.
John smiled back at him, “Happy Major West?”
Don didn’t answer, he just kept smiling.
“What’s going on?” Will asked.
“This is why Don’s the pilot of our ship,” John said. “I read his theory the year before we left on the habitability of exoplanets. Major West proposed that there could be planets that contain underground oceans which would make many of them more habitable than we realized.”
“Earth actually is less habitable than a lot of planets,” Don said. “Having oceans on the exterior means that it has to be in a habitable zone to sustain life. But my theory was that there are many planets and moons that have underground oceans with their own environment, their own ecosystem, that are not susceptible to the dangers of space. Asteroids, severe weather changes and such. The temperature is moderate because it’s warmed by the planet’s core. And on this planet the sunlight that’s filtered through the ice. I called them IWOWs. Interior Water Ocean Worlds. Needless to say, there were more than a few astrophysicists who thought I was crazy.”
The little girl said something to Will. She was motioning for him to follow her along the ocean.
“We better go, Major West,” John said. “If you’re ever going to win that Nobel prize.” He reached a hand down and pulled Don to his feet.
They started following the little girl along the beach. Don paused for a second and looked out across the water before catching up to them.
They walked along the water for another kilometer before the little girl turned toward the trees again. After several meters they saw they were at the bottom of a rocky cliff, practically hidden in the jungle. But on closer look, they saw it wasn’t a cliff at all, but a man made structure, built of huge blocks, evenly honed and fit together, climbing into the tops of the trees.
They stood looking up at the giant structure.
“Maybe an ancient city?” Don suggested, looking at John.
“Maybe,” he said. “It would be great to take time to explore this, but if we stay much longer, you might not want to leave, the way you wouldn’t stop staring at that ocean.” He smiled at the Major and Don smiled back.
“She wants us to follow her again,” Judy said.
She was motioning for them, but Will was looking up to the top of the wall and he didn’t see her until she took his hand again. Then he smiled down at her, and let her pull him along the side of the wall.
After several minutes, she stopped. There was an opening in the wall here. She pointed to it.
They gathered around her. “We need to go this way?” Will asked pointing inside the opening.
She pointed to him then to the entrance.
“You think it’s the way back to the surface?” Judy asked.
“I don’t know,” John answered, “But she got us out of there. I guess we need to trust her.”
Will pointed at her, then at the opening, but she pointed back to him, then pointed at all of them, then to the entrance. She pointed at herself then back to the jungle.
“Come with us,” Will said. “It’s not safe here.”
She just stood looking at him silently. Will stepped toward her and took her hand and gently tugged her toward the entrance in the wall. She pulled her hand back and pointed to herself and back to the jungle.
“Dad, she won’t go, she’s going to die here,” Will said.
“This is her home, Son. I know she was captured, but she seems to know how to survive here. And I don’t think we’re going to talk her into going.”
He walked up and shined a light in the opening. “There’s stairs. I’ll lead.”
They turned and looked at the little girl. She stepped up and took Will’s hand again. She began speaking. When she was done she hugged him quickly, turned and disappeared back into the jungle.
Will just stood watching the trees where she had gone. “What do you think will happen to her?” He asked, to no one in particular. Maybe he was talking to himself.
Judy put an arm around his shoulders. “I think she knows what she’s doing, and I think she will make it back to her people.”
They turned. John was standing by the entrance waiting, giving his children a few minutes. “You ready?” He asked.
“Yeah,” Will answered.
John walked inside the wall, Will and Judy behind him, Don taking up the rear after scanning the jungle one last time.
They followed the steps higher and higher, until they came to an end inside a small cavern. John looked around carefully before walking in to it, but once he was satisfied there was nothing to be concerned with, he stepped up then turned and waited for the others. “There’s light up ahead,” He said. “I think we’re at the surface.
Several meters down another tunnel, they found he was correct. Once again there were ancient, carved steps leading a few meters down until they were standing on the surface.
It was still cold, and everything was covered in ice, but the sun was bright and it was warming.
They all gathered outside. Will and Judy no longer had coats, as the Villagers had taken their packs and everything they carried.
“You guys stay here,” John said, turning to his children. Judy was standing with her arm around Will, trying to keep them both warm. “By my calculations the Chariot is several kilometers away. I’ll make the hike and come back and pick everyone up.”
“Not happening that way, John,” Don said. “You stay with your kids; I’ll get the Chariot.”
“I’m on my way. Be back as soon as I can.” He turned and smiled at Will and Judy. “Better get back inside and stay warm.”
Don started across the ice. Judy led Will back up the steps inside the cave with John following. “Here Will,” John took off his coat. “Put this on.”
“It’s not bad in here, I’ll be okay,” Will answered. “Give it to Judy.”
“Put it on, Will,” Judy said.
Will got the coat on then walked over to the wall and sat down and leaned against it. Judy sat next to him. Will was looking down at the ground. Judy and John shared a glance. They were both worried about Will’s state of mind.
An hour later Don’s faint voice came over John’s radio, but it was too distorted for them to know what he was saying. “He’s probably at the Chariot,” John announced. “His voice seemed calm, so I don’t think anything was wrong.”
Twenty minutes later Don pulled up in the Chariot. When he walked up the steps he took his coat off and gave it to Judy and the four of them started to walk outside. Just before he left the cave, Will turned around looked down the path. “Come on Will,” Judy put a hand on his neck and gently turned him around. “It’s over.” John was looking at the two of them, and again he and Judy shared a look.
John let them go in front of him, and as he watched his two children, Judy still walking beside Will with a hand protectively on his neck, he wondered if this would ever really be over for them.
The kids climbed in the back of the Chariot. Don took the driver’s seat and John got in beside him.
Soon after they started across the frozen ground on their way back to the Jupiter 2, Will fell asleep with his head on Judy’s shoulder. She put an arm around him and listened to his soft breathing.
John looked back at the two of them. “He’ll be okay I think,” Judy said.
“What about you?” John asked.
“I will too.”
“You know Judy, I need to apologize to you. I think I haven’t given you enough credit. You took really good care of your brother. You knew what you were doing the whole time, and he wouldn’t be alive now if it hadn’t been for you.”
Judy smiled at her father, “Thanks Dad.” Then she looked down at her brother. “But we took care of each other. And when that other girl…well…Will took the little girl’s hand and just talked to her, trying to get her to not look at the tree. Trying to get her to stay calm. Even though he knew what was happening was going to happen to all of us. He’s really strong Dad. You would have been so proud of him.”
John looked at his children, Judy’s arm around Will as he slept with his head on her shoulder. “I’m proud of you both,” he said.