Chapter 5: Connection
Luther was already at the log, his hand on the wood, when Deena crested the rise. Trimmed of its side branches, she got a good look at the size of the central trunk for the first time.
If that’d hit me, I’d be paste.
She paused. Something was wrong. There it was, the log that they had all come to see.
But there was no pull from it.
For something this important in her life, she expected something more significant, more magical. It was huge, massive, and ancient. But it was just a big dead tree.
For the last few days, something mystical had been calling her, she was sure of it. That was why she’d struggled so hard to get here.
Something urged her to return here to the forest, to the tree that almost killed her, she’d thought.
Well, it wasn’t the tree.
Eyes closed, she took a deep breath of the green life all around her.
She spread her arms wide, trying to soak it all up.
There! She could feel it stronger in that direction. She twisted where she stood, as if her arms were an antenna seeking out the vibrations all around her.
She was sure. That way!
Luther frowned. He did not want problems right now.
Bryony looked worried. Terrian had walked back along the trail, at least to the last rise where he’d left her. He shook his head.
“Could she’ve gone back to the car?” he asked.
“But why?” asked Bryony.
Luther sighed. “Maybe seeing the tree brought back bad memories. I don’t know. In any case, we have to find her.
“Bryony, stay here. Terrian and I are going to search for her.”
She looked alarmed. “Both of you?”
He held up the fingers of one hand. “Five minutes. That’s all. The trail branches back there. Terrian will take one branch, I’ll go the other back as far as the car. You need to stay here in case she just wandered off the trail and heads back. Okay?”
Hesitantly, she nodded.
He glanced at Terrian. No need to repeat. They headed back along the trail at a jog. At the branch, he called out, “Five minutes. No more.”
“Got it.” And they split up.
She wouldn’t have come this far. Deena had been obviously winded right out of the car. She wasn’t on the trail. For some reason, she’d gone into the bush.
He reached the road and one glance was enough to tell she wasn’t there. He didn’t stop, just turning around and keeping to his loose jog, suitable for the uneven ground.
On the way back, he noticed the spot where he’d caught up with her the first time and given her water.
She had pointed off that way. Whatever the source of her odd sense of direction, she had been intent on going on that vector.
Could she have taken a ‘shortcut’ and gotten lost?
It was worth a shot. He sighted on a tree with an old fire scar and stepped off the trail.
Pulser signals peaked. The organizers sent out the signal. Stop the host.
Smiths shifted to producing a molecule that regulated sleep in the host’s brain. The direction finder system that had been feeding pleasure sensations into her brain was shut down.
Their weak signals were being read by the giant hosts in all directions. For the first time since this host had been populated, local organizers could connect with the vastly superior intelligence provided by the matrix of hundreds of hosts, each containing thousands of times more organizers.
The issue of what to do with the current host could be resolved quickly.
Moving through the forest was not easy. The trails made a big difference. Luther climbed over a different fallen log, one nearly the size of the one they had come to see, but this one must have fallen ages ago. The wood was entirely covered with moss and other plants. His struggle had left black scrape marks through the tangle of green.
At least, I’ll have no trouble finding my way back. But if he hated to mess up the place, surely a park ranger would hate him doing that too. He couldn’t have that. He needed to be more careful.
Nervously, he checked for his guide tree. Changing directions every step made it easy to get lost out here.
Deena probably tried this, and got lost. At least he’d looked at the map before coming here. If all else failed, he just needed to travel east and he would reach the road again.
Hmm. Which way is east? It was hard to see the sky.
Deena was suddenly so tired that she could barely stand. She put out her hand for support.
I need to rest.
The tree was old, with a great black scar that went down its side from some forest fire hundreds of years ago. Redwoods were tough, but many carried visible reminders of their ability to survive.
Deena sat down on the moist ground and leaned her back against the tree. Her eyes closed.
For a few moments, highlighted by a single bird’s call, there was no motion other than the slow creep of a sunbeam that managed to make its way down to the forest floor. Then, oozing from the bark, a gray blob, like a thick liquid, formed on the surface just above her head.
Gravity took over from there, and it plopped down into her hair.
She jerked slightly, as if acting out a dream, but it wasn’t enough to wake her.
Uh, oh. Luther looked from one fire-scarred tree a few hundred yards ahead of him, to the other blackened giant off to his left. Maybe he should have paid more attention to details. Now that he looked closely, there were many trees that bore marks of a forest fire.
Of course. Probably all were marked in the same fire.
He stopped moving. Think it through. If I get lost, and the park rangers find me, someone is sure to want to talk to my parents. I can’t have that.
Slowly, he turned, examining his surroundings in detail. Off in the distance, he could see where he had climbed over a log. That was his way out. He could backtrack.
But Deena was still missing.
“Deena!” he called. Sound couldn’t carry well here, but he had to try. Double-checking his direction, he stepped ahead a few paces and called again.
What was that? His head turned sharply to the right. Something moved.
There it was again. Partially obscured by the ferns, he could see something blue.
Taking giant steps over the uneven ground, he moved closer.
It was Deena, slumped against a tree. His heart raced when he saw a dark, glistening patch on her head.
“Deena!” She moved. At least she was alive. If her head was bleeding, he needed to stop it fast.
Quickly, he reached her side. She was unconscious.
“Deena?” He shook her arm.
She mumbled, and took a deep breath, waking up.
“Ah. Luther?” She looked confused.
He was too. He touched the top of her head, but there was no sign of blood.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
He pulled his hand away. “I was just worried about you. You went missing. We’ve been looking for you.”
She had been dreaming, but like most dreams, she couldn’t remember what it had been about—not after waking up with black haired, blue-eyed Luther hovering over her.
He helped her to her feet. Her hand in his felt like it was burning.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out. “I was just...I don’t even remember. I didn’t mean for you to worry.”
He smiled. “It’s okay. I’m just glad you’re okay.” He looked around. “Now we have to find our way back.”
“Oh, we’re not far. The log is just over there.” She pointed back the way she had come. She waited for him to start, and he was waiting for her.
“Go ahead,” she said. He hesitated and then led the way—giving her the opportunity she needed to quickly brush the mud and decayed leaves off the seat of her pants.
She caught up quickly. It was slow going. He smiled back at her, and every time he did that, she caught her breath.
Don’t go giddy over the guy. He was nice, and concerned about her, but that didn’t mean anything. She wished it did.
He stopped and put out his hand.
“Wha...” he gestured for her to be quiet. She followed his gaze, and saw the deer. Motionless, with great liquid eyes, it was less than a dozen feet away, watching them intently.
The three of them waited, none of them moving.
Luther then whispered, “Let’s move on.”
She followed. The deer just watched them pass on by.
“They usually spook,” he said after they had moved on a little farther. “Deer here must be used to humans.”
Past a pair of great trees that had grown up side by side, so close they were now touching, she heard Bryony’s giggle. Luther picked up the pace, and around another tree, they could see the trail.
Bryony and Terrian were sitting up on the top of the log, dangling their feet off the edge of the cut, chatting away about something. Terrian spotted them. He pointed. “Ho there.”
Luther waved. Through another clump of ferns, they reached the trail.
“I see you found her.”
“Yes. She was off that way taking a nap.”
Bryony giggled. “Sleeping Beauty off in the Enchanted Forest.”
Terrian grinned. “Hey Luther, did you wake her with a kiss?”
“You want to walk back to town, Trent? If you’ll excuse me, I still have some rings to count.”
Bryony wanted down. Terrian hopped off the log, and held out his arms for her. They both enjoyed the assist.
“Deena, where have you been?” Bryony came over and took her arm. Terrian watched them go, and then ambled over to where Luther was hunched over, examining the wood closely.
They walked a little way back on the trail. Bryony whispered, “What have you been up to?”
Deena shook her head. “Nothing. I just wandered about and then fell asleep.”
“Then why are you blushing?”
Deena put her fingers to her cheek. “Oh. I’m just hot. Aren’t you hot?”
Her friend looked at her patiently, “Not that hot.”
The girls walked back to see how the counting was going. Luther looked up. “I counted from this side. Terrian is counting from the other. We’ll see if we match.”
Terrian shushed them. “I’m working here!”
In another minute, he said, “Done.”
Luther looked at the girls. “Would you care to guess how old this log is before we reveal our counts?”
Bryony giggled, “Two thousand years!”
Deena shook her head. “Not that old. I’d guess one thousand one hundred and fourteen.”
Luther frowned. He turned to Terrian.
“Close! Wow. I counted one thousand one hundred and ten.”
Luther nodded. “And I got one thousand one hundred and twelve. Were you counting from over there? How could you see the rings?”
Deena shook her head. “No, that was just a guess. Don’t mind me.”
They took a slow pace back to the car.
“We could make a historical plaque,” suggested Terrian. “This is where the entire senior class was almost wiped out.”
“That’s an exaggeration,” Bryony scolded.
“Oh, we needn’t be so obvious.” Luther explained, “Just say that on this date, the tree came down in the middle of a hiking group of students. Which is sort of true. I was on this side of it. Deena was on the other.
“The way history works, in a decade or so, a dozen people will have been killed.”
They laughed, but then Deena poked Luther in the side and pointed.
Down the trail, thirty feet ahead of them, a bull elk was standing in their way.
“Hold still,” said Luther. He looked at the fierce array of antlers and looked around on the ground for a stick or a rock.
Terrian moved to the front. The girls moved back.
“Hey!” shouted Terrian. Then to Luther he asked, “Shouldn’t he run off?”
“We saw a deer earlier. I think they must be pretty tame here.” He looked at Terrian and asked, “Do you think you can hit it with your water bottle?”
He hefted the half-filled container. “I’m a batter, not a pitcher. But I’ll try.”
The elk stayed motionless until the bottle hit him on the shoulder. With a bellow, it jumped off into the underbrush. Quickly, it was out of sight.
“Poor thing,” said Bryony.
“Good throw.” Luther slapped him on the back. “Now let’s get moving.”
Bryony joined Terrian. “You don’t think he was hurt, do you?”
“Ha. Just startled. That thing was massive! I don’t think I could have hurt it with anything less than a cannon.”
“Well, it scared me.”
They were still talking when the two of them got into the back seat together. Deena hesitated, then got into the front seat beside Luther.
Did she imagine it, or did Bryony grin at her?