©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Seventeen - The Rift
With the crater’s rocky peaks behind them, Flitter-2 was casually flying across the horizontal forest of down-blasted trees, and it seemed to be an endless sea of wooden toothpicks from the altitude of the aircraft.
Henry Clifton dropped their elevation to allow his current survey team to see the landscape below in better detail. Since he was not ferrying personnel back and forth between the ship and the camp much anymore, the cheetah was making more reconnaissance flights in one of the two Flitters that had been brought down to the surface.
Dean Ruston poked his head into the cockpit area of the Flitter and pointed out something through the forward window.
“There’s a place that might be large enough for Omaha to land vertically for more firewood,” said the husky, “but you’re a better judge of where your shuttle plane can fit.”
Henry nodded and altered course to check out the indicated clearing. Dean returned to the passenger area and sat down near the two women who had come along. Ginger Martin was still mourning Barry’s death, but she had requested this assignment so she could focus on something other than work in the camp for the day. Although she and Dean had never been a couple, they were frequently assigned jobs together due to their similar skills and upbringings and they usually got along well. Victoria Barbicane had become friends with Ginger back on the El-Five station, so chef Rocky had allowed her to volunteer to come along to provide emotional support for the gray wolf if needed; she also enjoyed a good outing into the unknown.
They all watched through the windows as the Flitter approached the clearing that Dean had pointed out, but after hovering for only a moment, Henry decided that although the Flitter could set down okay, it would be just a little too snug for the VTOL shuttle plane to land in.
The Flitter rose back up to a hundred feet above the horizontal forest and headed out further away from the crater. Clearings between downed trees were numerous, but were rarely more than a few feet across. It would be difficult to get Omaha into them so they could bring back more firewood than the Flitter itself had room for.
Rather than meander around in a random pattern, Henry chose a flight path due east. Winds were light and although there was a haze of moisture in the air, the weather was decent for flying. The continent’s perpetual rainforest was up ahead and the cheetah headed right for it without making a conscious decision to do so.
The tree canopy of the forest rose up almost to the height that they were flying, so Henry added altitude to stay above them. When they left the horizontal trees behind, the vista changed to a virtual green carpet growing out over gently undulating hills as far as the eye could see. Instruments reported a rise in local temperatures, water vapor and humidity, and the furmen began to see numerous varieties of flying creatures. These were analogous to birds, but they had all developed on their own lines and very little about them was familiar. The various colors reflected across the full spectrum of a rainbow, and there were so many different shapes and sizes that biologists would be cataloging avian wildlife of the rainforest for years to come.
Suddenly, there was a break up ahead in the canopy, so Henry made a direct line to it. Before he had even reached it, however, he knew it would be large enough to land in, though it was far from the horizontal firewood they were scouting for. When he slipped in over the clearing, he saw why there were no trees growing there.
Far below the canopy was an immense hole in the ground. It looked as if a massive sinkhole had simply collapsed beneath the forest floor, but it looked old, ancient and overgrown, as if it had fallen in ages ago.
Unable to land there, Henry deployed an electronic marker beacon from the belly of the Flitter so it could be relocated again as a place of interest. The markers had been included since Kittinger’s earlier reconnaissance flight out for firewood. The hand-sized device dropped into the depths of the hole on a small parachute and even the marker’s red blinking light was lost to view.
“Arion, are you tracking the beacon?”
“Affirmative, Mr. Clifton.”
“I wasn’t sure you could receive it as far down as it dropped.”
“No loss of signal. It is resting at a depth of twenty-three yards below the surface.”
“That’s a deep hole.”
Henry circled back toward the horizontal forest. The presence of the tiltrotor aircraft had stirred up the avian wildlife so he had to take it slow so as not to fly right through flocks of the creatures. He gave them all time to move out of his flight path, though some of them were slow to do so. This was the most native life any of them had seen since their arrival. There just did not seem to be much activity in the crater itself other than the invaders from Earth that had moved in.
They flew for another twenty minutes before Victoria called out that she had seen a likely place off the starboard side of the flyer, very near where the fallen trees met up with the standing forest. There was a basalt hillock sticking up from beneath the end of the blasted trees that pushed out a bluff; it had formed some fortification from the blast of the meteorite impact. On the eastern side of this dense rocky outcrop was a protected meadow surrounded on two sides by piles of natural lumber and the end by the rainforest. Henry’s keen eye knew this spot was more than large enough to drop Omaha straight down to ground level.
He set the Flitter’s tires onto a glade of grasses and flowers, blowing away a multitude of attendant insects with his fans. The ground beneath was firm and held the weight of the craft. Sure that his flyer would not fall into another sinkhole, the cheetah cut power to the engines and allowed everything to quiet down while he studied the conditions outside the vehicle.
Ginger and Victoria peered out through the same window together, pointing out colorful bird-like creatures that quickly moved back into the area, apparently undaunted by the presence of the tiltrotor flying machine that now resided in their domain.
Dean had been part of the last team that had gone out like this with Joe Kittinger on the Flitter-1 so he had already settled into his seat to await the five-minute down time while the pilot made sure everything outside was copasetic. While the women watched the birds, the canine husky watched the women, silently comparing the fluffiness of their tails.
Upon exiting the flyer moments later, Victoria walked straight to where the rainforest began, completely ignoring the dried firewood they had come to scout; Ginger followed close behind with caution. Both were outdoorsy types and Victoria was an accomplished survivalist, and each had a rifle slung over their shoulder in case they met up with anything that objected to their intrusion.
Dean had strapped on a holster with a revolver for his protection, but he hefted a chainsaw toward one of the massive fallen trees. Henry emerged from the aircraft with his own and walked to a different tree. Within moments, both were methodically cutting out chunks of firewood to take back, filling the air with shavings, dust and noise.
As the females stepped out of the sunlight into the perpetual shade beneath the canopy, the gray wolf raised her techwatch to her lips. “Arion, this is Ginger. Has Henry reported our position?” She had to speak in a louder tone to make herself heard over the wood cutting.
“Yes, Ms. Martin. I am monitoring your progress.”
“Victoria and I have stepped from the clearing where we have landed, under the tree line.”
“Can you describe one of the trees, please?”
“The tall trees that create the canopy look about thirty or more yards tall. They have a rough bark and branches that spread out with something like leaves.”
“Something like leaves?” Arion repeated. “Can you explain why you phrased it like that?”
The wolf chuckled. “These things are not like the trees I know from Earth, but they are definitely tree-ish.” She leaned in close to a huge trunk and examined it closer. “The bark appears to have metallic flake embedded all through it in veins. There’s a light breeze blowing up higher where the leaves are, and those seem to clap in halves, as if they were tiny books opening and closing. The root system spreads out, in and out of the ground, and it almost looks like they interconnect with the other trees around them. It would take a botanist to discover more.”
Mentioning a botanist made her think of Barry, and she felt a lump rise in her throat, but she swallowed hard and tried to put him out of her mind. She looked around the area at ground level and continued her report. Victoria had progressed farther into the shadows, her rifle now out and held at the ready as she investigated some of the sparse underbrush.
“Most of other vegetation seems to be high up in the trees in a symbiotic relationship with them. There’s not much down here where we are, just some random undergrowth that’s not very thick. I don’t suppose much sunlight ever gets down this far.”
“Describe the undergrowth.”
“Gnarled bushes growing around randomly, globular in shape with tiny leafy coverage and some kind of berry or fruit growing on them. Some of the bird-creatures are in and out of them, so I would suspect nesting inside their food source. Victoria’s checking one out now. Nothing in the way of grasses on the ground, just a lot of dirt and detritus.”
“Be sure to collect samples of the berry fruit for Dr. Manhigh, along with the book-leaves if you can get any. Describe the avian creatures.”
Ginger shook her head and swished her tail. “There’s too many to detail,” she said. “A few on the ground, many more up in the trees. All colors and numerous shapes. Some would fit in my hand, others as large as turkeys, only these can fly. The smaller creatures typically have two wings, while the larger have four – no doubt to help them fly with their greater weight on this world with slightly heavier gravity. The biologists will have a field day examining all of these.”
As she looked around, she spied one large bird that could have been as large as herself. It was completely covered in black or dark grey feathers and appeared to be sleeping with its talons tightly gripped to the large branch it rested upon above her. She gave an involuntary shudder, wondering if the thing would have been able to carry her away to be eaten by its young.
The red fox came back to her. “C’mon,” Victoria said. “We should give the guys a hand with the firewood.” She looked around the shadows and brushed a thumb across her rifle’s safety. “There’s something about this place that makes me uneasy, and there’s very few places that do that to me.”
“Arion, Victoria and I are going back to the glade to give the guys a hand cutting wood. Signing off for now.”
“I will be monitoring. Humidity is high at your location, so be sure to drink plenty of fluids while you work.”
“Got it, thanks.”
It had taken less than an hour to fill up available cargo space in the Flitter with firewood cut into manageable pieces. Space inside the tiltrotor aircraft was limited, which is why they had been scouting for a clearing large enough for one of the shuttle planes to VTOL in. They could come back later for more, and since the firewood they collected was from trees already downed, they would never have to cut live trees. Another marker beacon was left there so they could return later for more firewood as needed, although they could go in any direction from the crater to find more.
When Flitter-2 lifted out of the clearing, the low clouds over the rainforest had grown darker in preparation for the daily rains, but as yet none had fallen in this region. Henry took the craft to an altitude above the top of the canopy but below the cloud ceiling, and then headed back over the horizontal forest.
After some time, they approached the ridge rock and Henry slowed their speed. Instead of increasing altitude, he advanced slowly toward the base of the mountains. They would have to rise up through the dense cloud cover in order to get above the jagged mountain tops, and while it could be done with instruments, it was risky. Since they were on no timetable, he considered setting down somewhere until after the rains fell and then letting the clouds break up as they always seemed to do on a daily basis.
Without taking his eyes off the instrument panel, Henry continued slow toward the looming wall of rock. “What is it, Victoria?”
“I thought I saw something!”
“Well, what was it?”
The vixen unbuckled her harness and carefully came forward to the cockpit area. “I thought I saw a building!”
The cheetah pulled the Flitter up short just a few yards from the mountainside. “Wait, what? A building?”
“That’s impossible,” Dean growled from behind her. “This place is uninhabited – except by us.” Henry looked back at them and saw Ginger’s ears behind the husky’s shoulder; it seemed that they had all come forward.
“Uninhabited – for all we know!” Victoria shot back.
“BR549 studied this planet for two years and never saw any sign of habitation!”
“You all need to get back into your harnesses,” the pilot told them. Despite this, however, they all stayed in place behind his seat.
“What did you see?” Ginger asked.
“It was dome-shaped,” said the vixen, “a perfect half-circle sitting on top of the ground, but there wasn’t much of a clearing around it.”
“If anything, it was probably a rounded boulder pushed up through the ground with the upheaval,” Dean conjectured. Victoria glared at the husky and shook her head.
“It was no natural extrusion.”
Without arguing, Henry rotated the Flitter on its axis and began flying back the way they had come. The others moved back to their seats and buckled in with canine and vulpine noses pressed to the windows in search of the mystery dome.
After ten minutes, the Flitter slowed to a hover again. There had been no place to land and none of them had seen any other clearings along their flight path.
“We’ve come too far,” Victoria complained. “It was closer to where we stopped near the rock wall.”
The feline pilot frowned, but held his tongue, turning the craft around again. He glanced up at the sky and then to his instruments. Rain was imminent.
“Look sharp, everybody,” he murmured.
The Flitter progressed at a slower rate, but the pilot could not be certain he covered the exact same ground as they had on the flight back; there were no coordinates to compare their position to.
At Victoria’s insistence, they moved back and forth over the area for twenty minutes, each time covering a slightly different path, but none of them had seen what she had by the time the rains began falling. Henry found several fallen trees resting parallel to one another at about the same level and height, so he gently set the Flitter on top of them and hoped neither of the giant logs would roll with their weight. When he powered down the fans, the locked wheels appeared to be stable atop the logs, so he leaned back in his seat with crossed arms.
“Just relax, everyone, but don’t move around too much,” he said. “We’ll wait out the rain before we try going back over the rim.”
“I can’t believe we haven’t been able to find it again,” murmured Victoria. “It was plain as day when I saw it, so we can’t have gone back over the same ground.” She rubbed her eyes and added, “I admit that it may have just been a trick of light and shadows, but it was so clear.”
Ginger moved over to a seat next to the vixen and put a hand on her arm. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if it really was a building?” she asked. “What a find that would be!”
“I’m not so sure I would want to find evidence of a previous culture,” Dean groused.
“Why not?” Victoria asked, suddenly perturbed by the husky’s dour mood.
“Because if this planet is inhabited, we may have to find a way to get off this rock and find a new home.”
“Why?” Ginger leaned toward her friend and work partner.
Dean held up two stubby fingers. “One, whomever was here first may not want us intruding upon their world. I didn’t come out here to start a fight with the natives.”
“What makes you think we couldn’t get along with them? There’s a whole world to share.”
“That brings me to two. Humans have a notorious history of planting a flag and deposing others that may be inhabiting land that they want. We came here to colonize, but I’m sure there are those among our two ships who would get indignant of anyone else living here, whether or not they were here first. For all of the good-minded people who would want to do the right thing, there are more who would take what they want – and all be hanged who would oppose them!”
“You don’t think too highly of the human race,” Henry muttered.
“Human history backs me up,” Dean retorted, “and now that our band has been given animalistic instincts and increased strength with personal offensive weaponry, there would be those among us who would freely use them against anyone they thought threatened their way of life.”
He looked over at Victoria. He liked the vixen – a lot – but he could not agree with any enthusiasm she might have of discovering signs of another civilization. “I really hope what you saw was just a rock formation, some exposed magma or other mineral pushed up out of the ground when the meteorite struck this place.”
Victoria crossed her arms. “We may never know, since we can’t seem to find what I saw in the first place anyway.”
The rain continued for well over an hour, but when it ended, the clouds began to break up almost immediately. Sunshine peered through and the whole day seemed to brighten. Henry had fallen into a short nap, but when Dean nudged him, the cheetah stretched, yawned and then stood up from the passenger seat.
The pilot moved to the cockpit, but found it occupied. Ginger sat with her elbows up on the control board, leaning forward with her gaze focused upon the abruptness of the stone wall only a few yards away. Wet rock gleamed in the sunlight and little rivulets streamed down to the ground.
The wolf noticed him standing behind the pilot seat and then she pointed outside without a word. His eyes followed the glistening paths and it took a moment or two before something stood out at him.
Down in front of them was a path at ground-level that led straight into the mountains of the crater rim. It was narrow, barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side, but appeared to go on through the destruction.
“Let’s all take a walk,” she said with a smile.
A moment later, the door of the Flitter opened and the furmen stepped down onto the wet ground. All four were armed, but it was the wolf who took the lead. She held her rifle ready with a finger on the safety, but she betrayed no sense of fear as she stepped toward the mountain pass. Henry locked the door to the aircraft and brought up the rear.
The rain had washed small pebbles across the pathway, but as they progressed the ground became dryer where the rock above shielded it from the daily rains. Looking above them, Ginger noted that the small pass was at the bottom of a high rift in the stone, but the higher elevations came together and the illumination dimmed with the overhead ceiling. They never did cross into full darkness, as random cracks above gave them ambient light.
The ground dried out completely only twenty yards in, but remained relatively level. The path meandered a bit, but did not deviate much. Dean stopped and dropped to all fours to put out a hand-paw at an impression in the ground. It was some kind of animal track and his companions gathered around to see what he examined. The canine sniffed at it before realizing he was doing so, and while his sensitive olfactory senses gave him a wealth of instinctive information, he was unsure of how to interpret what he discovered. If nothing else, the track seemed relatively fresh to him, and that in itself presented a feeling of caution.
He spread out his fingers, but the track was bigger than his hand. It was triangular, somewhat shaped like a duck’s foot, but possessed three large toes, each tipped with a nail or claw that had marked the dry soil. The impression of the heel suggested something with more weight than any of them. There only seemed to be two distinct prints with a small furrow dragged in the dust between them.
“This is larger than anything we’ve seen so far,” said the husky, peering ahead and spotting more of the tracks. “We must be careful. These marks are recent.”
“No doubt there are more life forms out in the forest than out in the crater.”
Dean looked up at Ginger and nodded. “It’s bipedal, walking on two feet, and drags a heavy tail.”
“Sounds like a movie alien,” Victoria said.
Henry smiled. “We’re the aliens here. Whatever this was is likely a native creature.”
“I don’t see any signs of nesting or habitation,” Ginger remarked. “From all appearances, this looks like an animal path, so it must go somewhere.”
Dean stood up and peered ahead of them. The lane seemed to go on in through the mountain with variations on the incoming amount of light. “Maybe it goes all the way in through to the crater,” he suggested. “We’ve seen no other avenues between the crater and forests, so perhaps anything coming and going would have to use paths like this.”
“So, do we stop here or go on?” Henry asked.
Ginger thought about it and then gestured back toward their transportation. “Let’s tag the spot with one of your marker beacons, and then we can come back when we’re better prepared for a hike. We’ve seen how long it takes just to fly over the rim. It’ll take hours to hike through – and then back again.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” Dean replied. “Better to plan ahead. I would recommend bringing a motion sensor to point in front of us next time in here. The track-maker might be here again and we won’t want to come up upon something that large and startle it.”
“Maybe we should wear some bear bells so it can hear us coming,” Ginger suggested with a smile. “I’ve used those hiking through Yellowstone.”
“Alright, back to the Flitter.” Henry embellished a military about-face and began marching back the way they had come amidst the chuckles of his companions.
Now behind them, none of the furmen noticed eye-shine reflecting in the dim light farther up the pathway.
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