Some Like It Hot
Satisfied that Barnes’s grunts would have their camp up and running in no time, Sida led her crew into the jungle surrounding the World Opening.
“Shouldn’t take long to find running water in this environment,” Blake noted.
That was always their first objective. It was the fastest way to find civilization, especially if they were dealing with a primitive planet, as the lack of pollutants would suggest. Of course, it was just as likely they were dealing with a highly advanced race that had stopped emitting pollution a long time ago.
Forty minutes into their trek, Blake smacked another mosquito-like insect off his neck. “It’s like walking through the damn Amazon around here. Even with weapons, you can’t help feeling extremely low on the food chain.”
“Humans haven’t been at the top of the food chain since we decided to be smartasses and leave our own solar system,” Sida remarked. “Insolent children that we are.”
“Wow, Captain, that only missed the enlightening mark by this–”
Blake cut himself off when Sida stopped abruptly and signaled for her team to do the same. Pointing to her eyes first, she then pointed through a gap in the broad leaves straight ahead and started unfastening the binoculars from her belt. Blake leaned in to get a line on her visual.
“Is that smoke?” he questioned, pulling the binoculars from her hands and using them, rather than digging out his own.
Sida squinted at the distant pillars of something white rising up into the sky. Some were narrow and nearly transparent, others were so dense they looked more like stretched, vertical clouds.
“Well?” she prompted.
“I’m thinking steam,” Blake replied. “No embers, ash, or discoloration that would indicate burning. Of course, that means we could be looking at volcanic activity after all.”
“Any signs of life?”
“No, just the steam.”
“Try thermal,” she suggested.
Blake adjusted the binoculars and immediately jerked them away from his face with a seething hiss. “Well, that was insightful, everything’s red!” he griped, rubbing at his eyes, before adjusting the binoculars more and trying again. “Yep, red, yellow and orange. Even the vegetation has body heat, as if everything’s abnormally hot.”
“Hot springs, of course!” Isiah swore, obviously disappointed he hadn’t thought of that sooner. “They must be feeding all the vegetation, which is why there’s a higher concentration of minerals and sulfur in the air.”
Sida removed her glove and placed her palm on the nearest tree. “It does feel warmer than it should,” she confirmed. “Close to the same temperature as the air, though, nothing extreme.”
“They seem elevated from our position, but could still be exposed pools, or geysers,” Isiah noted, as he took his own turn with the binoculars.
If it was the former, natives could still be situated nearby in order to utilize them, but if was the latter… “That puts us right back in danger of seismic activity,” she said, chewing on the debate running through her mind on how to proceed.
“Hey, you know what we could do in a hot spring?” Blake wagged his brows at her.
His libido was so predictable, it was amusing. “You go right ahead and keep that image in your mind, Commander, because that’s the closest you’re getting to hot tub sex right now,” she smirked.
“Well yeah, because we have to get there first,” he scoffed.
She merely shook her head at his optimism. Secretly, the idea of sinking into hot mineral pools sounded like paradise to her, sex would merely be a bonus. She didn’t have to tell him that, though.
“That’s our new destination, team. Let’s gain as much ground as we can.”
Countless hours passed, as they trudged through underbrush half the size of the trees, which was still three times the size of them, and didn’t appear any closer to the steam stacks than when they’d started. Yet, they could still see them, playing peekaboo through a somewhat steady range of gaps in the the canopy and foliage.
“I’m not sure I care for how much this feels like a trail,” Sida remarked.
Blake glanced at the spongy, moss covered ground. “It’s not worn by anything living,” he pointed out. “Something under the surface is blocking the root systems here.”
“You always make me feel so much better in potentially dangerous situations, Yarring,” she grumbled.
“Potentially dangerous situations is exactly why I asked to join your crew, Captain,” Blake deadpanned. “No matter what you tell those cadets at NASE, you live for this kind of shit, same as I do.”
Sida couldn’t argue with him completely. She thrived on the various thrills that came with danger and discovery, but she was also responsible for a lot of lives and there was nothing exciting about that. Another hour passed with no change, so when they came upon the first decent clearing, she called it.
“Alright crew, we make camp here for the rest of the night–or day, whichever,” she announced. “Three hour shifts. Yarring, Minnows and I will take first watch.”
No one argued, as gear packs were dropped and rifled through for camp materials. Everyone was hungry, thirsty and exhausted. The temperature never altered a single degree, heavy with humidity and no wind for relief. If anything, it felt warmer the closer they got to the steam stacks. As Sida started walking a perimeter around the site, circling further out with each pass, she worried about the pressure that could be building in trapped veins right below the surface of where her crew was getting ready to sleep.
“You ever hear of safety in numbers?” Blake scolded, coming up beside her a little while later.
“Mmm, only when it comes with coffee,” she grinned, accepting the steaming cup he offered. “Thanks.”
“Self-preservation,” he admitted, taking a sip of his own. “I know how charming you get without your regular caffeine fixes.”
Sida chuckled, too tired to argue.
“Unless, of course, you had a different kind of fix in mind?”
She opened her mouth to answer and then went on full alert at the somewhat distant sound of thrashing leaves. She knew Blake hadn’t heard it, but he instantly followed her cue, because they knew each other too well for skepticism. Their coffee was quietly abandoned, as they drew their weapons, tuning all their senses into the world around them. Sida signaled that she’d heard something and then pointed in the direction she was intending to go. Blake nodded and moved with her.
It was as natural as breathing, the way they fell into sync, creeping silently through leaves and vines. Their gazes swept opposing hemispheres, so all angles were covered. It didn’t take long to notice they were going up a gradual incline of thick, fern-like ground coverage. Sida heard the same noise again, and this time, so did Blake. It sounded like someone was running very swiftly through the jungle, without fear of being heard, yet it was still distant. It grew louder, the higher up the small hill they went.
They crouched into a crawl for the last several feet, until the land rounded into a natural ledge and that’s where the scenery hit them all at once. The hill topped a dramatic drop-off that led into a dark valley where the canopy of more jungle kept the real distance to the ground hidden from view. The mouth of a river was just visible beyond the far-off forest end, snaking out to feed a large body of water between it and a sprawling, modern metropolis glowing with lights nestled into the base of a giant mountain range. It wasn’t a neon city filled with cloud breaching skyscrapers, but it was far from primitive.
Sida studied the red glow of a large moon offset by two smaller moons that were farther away. They were illuminated in varying shades of pale pink to the same bright white that Earth’s natural satellite reflected. That confirmed their suspicions; a Red Dwarf was definitely present, but so was a Yellow Dwarf, which would account for the temperature and lush vegetation. Sida held up two fingers and Blake nodded in agreement. The planet had two stars. Daytime cycles were gonna suck.
Blake dropped and shoved Sida’s head down into the ferns, when a patrol cruiser broke through the treetops in the valley far below, its spotlights shining in all directions, to include theirs.
Sida parted the ferns between them and found their noses nearly touching. “It’s looking for whoever we heard running,” she whispered.
“Did you recognize it?”
“I didn’t get a good enough look. That blasted red moon isn’t penetrating even the weakest of shadows.”
They heard the thrashing of underbrush again and Blake pulled his binoculars out to try to lock onto the position of their runner.
“I think there’s more than one–”
The sound of multiple shots being fired split the air from behind them and to the right, turning Sida’s blood into ice and physically jarring Blake.
“That was camp!” She panicked.
♥ Thanks for reading! If you’re just joining in, you can find the first 4 episodes under the menu link “The Wicked Web” – There you will find 25 episodes of another serial titled Thief of Dragons, which combines SciFi with Fantasy. Stay tuned for new episodes coming soon!