Paler gray smudged the dark sky past the tracery of branches overhead. I strained toward it, pulling in a deep breath as if I could breathe in the promise of day instead of the cold night air. Choking ground mist flowed to my armpits, ebbed to my knees, surged higher to engulf me again in shrouding blankness. Directions were gone. My feet groped along the narrow trail winding among invisibly looming black trees, deeper into the shadowed forest.
Into taboo. The ragged gap cut in the enclave boundary fence was hours behind me now. I didn’t know where the trail was leading me. I could feel the heavy presence of the forest pressing in on me. All I could see was flat blackness. All I could hear was an occasional curse as one of the men up ahead tripped on a root or rock. The sounds were thin lifelines pulling me along. The blanketing fog muffled my own splashes and stumbles as I followed.
Finally, the mist began to thin. Curling fingers dissolved upward into daylight as pale beams straggled down through the chill. I took a deep breath, shivering in my soaked tunic and wickweave.
Another sound floated back through the gloom. A voice, closer now. I held my breath, straining to catch wisps of conversation. Only vague mutterings. I didn’t dare move any closer. The faint voices didn’t seem to be moving now, so I sat on a fallen scrub tree to wait them out.
The tree trunk was wet and cold. I could relate to it. It was coated with the usual layers of moss, lichen, fringed ferns, ruffled fungi, tiny gleaming mushrooms. A berry bush growing over it dripped icy drops onto my face and shoulders. The muddy trail gave off a pungent smell of earth and rot. I could see the giant haavriathils now, marching in their intimidating ranks into dimness on all sides, crowding out the light, massive limbs intertwined far overhead, invisible crowns commanding the dawn.
I huddled in their indifferent shadows, too small to be noticed, too brief to matter. If they could have seen me invading their taboo ground, they wouldn’t have cared one way or the other. I tilted my head back, looking up. Muted dawn lent a strange beauty to the somber dignity of the giant trees.
A snapping sound up ahead signalled movement again. I swung hastily down from my perch as thuds and rustling moved away from me at a faster pace than before. I caught a few words: “The new cut....”
I hung back as my quarry clomped. A dull, rhythmic sound was almost familiar, teasing memory. Early morning. Winter. Frost over bare, stubbled fields. I shook my head, shaking off intrusive thoughts of a home I didn’t have a right to anymore. This was Andura, and I had a job to do. I hurried on after Heinck and his men. The trail dipped into a narrow streambed, rose again, rounded a stone outcrop, and brought me abruptly into day. The last shreds of mist were suddenly gone. The dense underbrush had lightened surprisingly, glowing a rich, bright green around me.
There were voices ahead, the rhythmic sound louder now. I crept behind a bush and peered out.
Sunlight. A full blaze of it.
I blinked, blinded and confused. I squinted upward. A broad sweep of cloudless sky, dazzle of sunshine pouring down past a backdrop of dark haavriathil trunks. Sunlight, unobstructed by branches. I blinked and squinted past the bushes concealing me. My fists clenched.
It really wasn’t more than a few kliks long, maybe not that wide. It looked like more. An entire shallow valley. The forest should have been screaming its outrage, but the trees remained mute. There was silence except for that steady, dull, familiar sound.
The giants lay tumbled and dead. Their immense black-barked trunks had been felledwith monumental carelessness across the ragged, cleared swath, the crushed trails of their falling smashed into the surrounding forest. They were cracked and broken over each other. Massive sliced ends protruded from towering piles of partially burned wood farther down the cut, where a clutter of rough timber shacks settled into the mud. Ashes stirred in a breeze past remnants of enormous branches still bearing flat needles as long and thick as my arm, singed on the edges. The ground—the bare earth of Andura I was seeing for the first time—was dark and rocky, scraped away in gaping wounds, oozing in the flats into churned mud between piles of slash. Immense roots, monstrous spidery forms, protruded from jagged banks and rocks already washed bare by rain. On the far side of the cut a steep hill had slumped, making another raw gash in the earth and throwing its burden of trees and brush sideways over the clearing. Muddy water trickled over it. More of the exposed soil suddenly fell away with a muffled thud across the torn valley. Beyond my hiding place, the underbrush ended in a jagged slice. A delicate tracery of fern leaves lay trampled in the mud.
I closed my eyes and took a deep, careful breath. I turned to look behind me. Haavriathils towered overhead, claiming the sky. Ponderous trunks flared to root forever in the earth. Impossible they could be toppled.
I turned back to the carnage. The jagged line of torn earth and trees was a discontinuity of more than place. It was Andura itself, the reality of it, torn across like a ripped page of one of the books the cybers said didn’t exist.
I shook my head. This was real. The rotten bastard.
Heinck was striding through the mud around the branch piles, skirting a fallen trunk. The chopping stopped. Big hands engulfing an oversized ax slowly lowered it. Raul set the ax aside, looking a question at the boss.
Heinck shouted and waved toward cables twisted and buried beneath the mountain of fallen tree and branches he climbed over. He pointed at some machinery squatting in the mud, crushed in on one side by a branch. He waved at the tiny Anduran I now saw hunched silently apart, perched among the tumbled branches of the felled haavriathil, head on updrawn knees.
The Anduran seemed oblivious as Heinck shouted again, threw off his rain tunic, and struggled through tangled, broken limbs to inspect the damaged contraplan machinery. He or she huddled motionless, a tiny shape of reddish brown among the narrower high branches of the same color, inert as a knot on the tree.
The small figure raised its face to stare blankly in my direction with eyes that even from a distance looked empty. Flat amber glass. I could see now she was a woman, not young. Her round face was still expressionless. And that desolation was more complete than the ravaged earth’s, as if all meaning had drained away through her glazed eyes.
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