"Mister Wazel, which direction is the valley?" The mink thought a moment and then pointed as well.
"All right, so north is along the ridge here and the valley is to the west. We'll be going west tomorrow, so for today we'll concentrate on the other directions. Doctor, you'll go north, Toft and Gorne with you. Sergeant, lead a party south. Meyyammai and Wazel are with you. Mister Wazel, if you get a chance, you could try another tree and see if you can get a better view of the castle. I'll go east, Disti and Keren with me. Mister Vankloser, you're on guard duty here at camp. I know we're all tired, so we won't go far, an hour out and back. Remember that we don't know what's around the next tree and be careful. Everyone in each party should have a first-aid kit and a day of food, and each party should have a compass. Unfortunately we don't have canteens or radios, so we'll have to do without those. Questions?"
"What do we do if we find... somebody?" Disti asked.
"Use your best judgement, Mister Disti. That's all any of us can do."
"What do you make of this forest, Doctor?" Toft asked Elggren as the three headed north.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Elggren replied, shaking his head. "Biology is way out of my field. The trilateral symmetry looks bizarre but there are a few examples back home. But I've never heard of anyplace with so few species that wasn't a garden. Look at all these plants! Why isn't there anything here eating them? Sooner or later, we're going to have to try, and it doesn't give me a good feeling."
"Most of us need meat, too," Gorne added. "So far I haven't seen anything but those weird birds, and not too many of them either. Feeding a pack of carnivores like us requires herds of meat animals."
"Well, somebody used to live here. Hopefully we can find whatever they ate," said Elggren, trying to sound more optimistic than he felt.
"We can hope, Doctor," Toft said, and he heard the false cheer in her voice too.
"Please, call me Shivak," he said. "It's just the ten of us for the rest of our lives, and the roles that we played are gone. What does a doctorate in solid-state physics buy me, here? I really don't see any point in standing on meaningless formalities."
"Well, if you're Shivak, then I'm Zetucha and she's Langka," Gorne said. "Aren't you worried about undermining your authority, though?"
He shrugged. "What authority? I was nominal head of the project, yes. That doesn't mean much here. We sent the students and junior researchers topside when the first alarm went off. I hope they got away all right. Anyway, the other four who stayed are my peers, and they wouldn't listen to me when I urged them to go any more than I listened to them."
"You're lucky, then," Gorne continued. "You can be just one of the guys, so to speak. The commander isn't going to get that chance."
"What do you mean?"
"There's no top brass to enforce his authority. All he has is our respect for him, which is off to a shaky start because we hardly know him. So far he's been very, very reasonable. Every order he's given has made too much sense, we'd be fools to disobey. But what happens if he has to give an unreasonable order? What happens if he has to pick someone and say, you're the guinea pig? Or, you're the one who's going to die to save the rest? We may not have the luxury of volunteers or argument. Maybe Ulis should be in charge."
They walked in uncomfortable silence for several minutes, winding around trees and through the low underbrush. All of it was the same, any one bit of the forest indistinguishable from any of the other bits they'd been through, and Toft kept a close eye on the compass so they'd have some hope of getting back to the camp.
"Give the commander a chance," Elggren finally said. "I think he's probably the best leader we have among us."
"That's probably true," Gorne said. "If he'd been stationed with us for a year, I probably wouldn't even be thinking these things. But as things stand, do we have time to learn to trust him in a crunch?"
"I hope so."
"Incidentally, I understand you're the one who spilled our little secret to the him."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't realize you were trying to keep it from him."
They both laughed. "We weren't, not really," said Gorne. "We just weren't telling him. It didn't make much difference, and we wondered how long it would take him to figure it out."
"I'm sure he would have noticed when he read the personnel files. It was only bad luck that he didn't have the chance."
Toft looked at her watch and finally spoke up. "Well, that's just about an hour. We might as well turn back, there isn't anything this direction except these trees which might as well be clones of each other."
The other two nodded and they turned, starting the hike back to camp.
Sergeant Ulis's party was having similar thoughts several clicks to the south.
"I'm tired," complained Meyyammai. "Can we at least sit down for a few minutes before heading back?"
Ulis sighed, then nodded. "All right. Not finding anything but trees anyway." Meyyammai plopped herself down on the leafy ground and rubbed her sore legs. "Lot of walking in our future, miss," the bear continued. "May hurt now, but soon you'll walk this far and hardly notice."
"I know, I know," the mouse said. "But the process of getting there is pretty miserable."
Wazel looked around, then started walking in a wide circle around the other two, peering into the distance. "You know what this forest is missing?"
"Animals? Plants? It's missing almost everything when you come right down to it," Meyyammai said.
"Yes, but I was thinking specifically of logs. I haven't seen a single fallen tree, or even a large branch. If this were an inhabited area, I'd suspect that they'd been gathered for firewood, but there would still be stumps around, and I haven't seen any of those either." The mink was still walking, looking off into the forest and not watching where he was going, then he yelped and fell sideways, his hands going to his side.
Ulis lumbered over, crouching by Wazel, dividing his attention between the mink and the forest, looking for enemies. "What happened?" he whispered. "Are you hurt?"
"It feels like I walked into the end of a stick," Wazel said. He slowly took his hands away from his side, revealing only his shirt, undamaged. He leaned over cautiously, taking a closer look, then pulled up his shirt. The fur underneath was undisturbed, and he prodded himself cautiously, yipping a bit when he found the exact spot. He parted his fur and there was a small red mark. "No harm done, but I'll probably have a bruise."
"I don't see anything," Ulis said. He moved around the mink carefully, trying to guess exactly where Wazel had been. He couldn't see anything but the ubiquitous brush. Cautiously, he touched the nearest plant. Nothing happened, so he grasped the main stem and wiggled it. Some of the leaves acted like they were hitting something. He pulled the plant back and looked very carefully.
"Well, what's this?" he said.
"Where?" asked Wazel, sitting up and following the bear's gaze. Meyyammai got up and joined them, limping a bit, and peered over Ulis's shoulder. The bear pointed carefully, and then they spotted it. Hanging in the air just beyond the tip of Ulis's claw was a small black object, roughly round. He tapped it lightly, and it didn't move, but they could all hear the click of his claw on it.
"What is it?" asked Meyyammai, stepping around Ulis to get a closer look.
"'Something'," said the bear with a snort. "Like everything else hereabouts, that's the best we can do."
Meyyammai grabbed a leaf and ran it all around the little black speck without hitting anything. "There's nothing holding it up!" She pushed at it with a fingertip and it didn't move, pushed harder, hard enough to make herself lurch, but the speck didn't move. "There's nothing holding it up, but it's fixed there like it was set in stone."
Wazel moved in, looking at it very closely. "And it's so black you can't really see it. I know there's a surface there, but it might as well be a two-dimensional dot. It's very hard to make something that black."
"Would make a great antipersonnel defense," Ulis said glumly. "A troop of infantry charging into a scattering of those would be so injured and confused that they'd be easy pickings. If it's fixed as firm as it seems to be, it would play hell with armor too. Or aircraft. They'd never know what hit them."
"What are you thinking, Sergeant?" asked Meyyammai.
"Wondering if this place isn't so empty because everyone and everything got wiped out. If this is a weapon, what other surprises are lurking? You got lucky, Mister Wazel. If you walked into this with your eye, we couldn't fix that."
The mink nodded. "I don't know what we can do, though. We can't stop exploring, not until we find water and food."
"But maybe this is far enough for today. Should report back, warn the others. Maybe someone will have an idea."
Wazel looked around. "We should mark this place somehow, so we don't run into it again. And maybe, if we're lucky, we won't find another one." He looked around some more, then shrugged and started ripping the leafy undergrowth up and tossing it aside. The others joined him, careful of the nearly-invisible speck in the center. When they had a clear area ten feet across, they wordlessly started back for the camp.
The commander marched steadily up the gentle slope, Keren and Disti trailing behind him, and tried not to get too far in front of them. There didn't seem to be any danger, but that made him nervous in itself. He'd been born a city boy, but his training and postings had taken him to a lot of out-of-the-way places. In a wilderness like this, there should be a certain number of menaces to keep an eye out for, and he couldn't find any of them here. He couldn't help but wonder what else he wasn't seeing.
After about fifteen minutes, the two scientists picked up their pace. He supposed that they'd run out of observations to make on the three species of trees and one species of underbrush, and were hoping that things might change if they went far enough. He wasn't convinced that they would.
The slope got distinctly steeper and they all slowed. Keren and Disti paused to inspect a rock outcropping, the first stone they'd seen here except for the gate pillars. Clager prowled around them in a large circle, looking for anything but finding only more trees and underbrush, identical to what they'd already seen. He finally walked back to the rock, which was partly covered with moss. Probably the same moss we saw on the gate pillars, he thought. This place doesn't create anything new if it can help it.
"Anything interesting?" he asked.
"Hard to say, Commander," Keren said. "None of us are geologists. It looks like a chunk of granite, not very different from what the gate pillars were made of."
"Sadly, if it has any secrets, we're not the ones to find out," added Disti. "But at least it's a break from the trees."
"I know the feeling," Clager said gravely. Karen sat on the rock and the other two joined her. "I really don't know what to think about a world that's... boring."
"It's a mystery," Disti said. "Everything we know about ecologies -- although we don't have any specialists in that with us, either -- says that a place like this shouldn't happen."
"Yes. It's not necessarily bad, if this place is really how it appears to be, then as long as we can find food and water, survival will be a lot simpler without having to deal with predators and insects and other menaces. But I can't shake the feeling that the lack of obvious threats just means that we're going to get nasty surprises later on."
"We can hope not," said Keren.
The next day, they set out for the valley to the west. Gorne and Toft stayed behind with Sennae, keeping an eye on the store as Clager liked to say, but all the rest went even though it was going to be a long walk. They still didn't have any canteens, so Ulis carried one of the big plastic jugs strapped to his back. At first, they walked through more of the same trees and underbrush. Wazel had reported his misadventure. A search of their meager gear had turned up no helmets or goggles, but they had to explore more, so they went, but they all moved a bit gingerly and didn't make good time.
Eventually, they came to the edge of the valley. It was a very definite edge, the forest stopping and the triangular grass that filled the valley starting in a line that wound along the curves of the hills. They stood, looking out over the grass waving gently in the breeze. The sky overhead was still gray, the overcast had not let up at all since they arrived through the gate.
"There's something moving in the grass," Vankloser said. As silently as they could, they all moved back into the underbrush and crouched, except for Ulis who was simply too big to lurk. The disturbance in the grass wasn't very big, and seemed to be moving slowly and carefully itself, along a line from their left to the right, angling away from them. The bear watched it for a minute, then turned to look at Clager. The commander nodded, and Ulis stepped forward into the grass, heading toward the disturbance.
The closer the sergeant got to the waving in the grass, the faster it moved, and he shifted to a lumbering run. That was too much for the creature's nerves and it shot up out of the grass, flapping all three wings frantically and squawking loudly. A dozen more erupted from further ahead, squawking as well, their wings barely supporting their chicken-sized brown-striped bodies. Ulis dodged back, arms held up to shield himself, then relaxed as they clumsily flapped off toward the center of the valley, settling back into the grass a hundred meters away.
The bear watched them until the birds had disappeared into the grass, then turned to the others. "Food birds!" he said. "Nice meaty ones. Can we eat them, there's a big part of our food problem solved." The rest emerged from the brush and walked out into the grass to join him, moving cautiously lest they step on a lurking bird.
"I'm not sure I want to eat that," Meyyammai said, standing at Ulis's side. "I know it's not a monster, just a different way of of building a lifeform, but I've had nightmares about things that look like that!"
Ulis patted the waist-high mouse on her head. "Do you get hungry enough, you won't care."
She sighed and nodded. "I know. I'd rather eat than starve, but still... ick."