THEY DWARFED THE SHUTTLE LAUNCHER.
On most worlds the acceleration tubes speared toward the sky from a flat expanse of paving, looming above anything in sight. Andura's single launcher huddled against the cramped clearance facilities like a twig dropped from the upper altitudes of the living mountain of forest.
I dimly registered cold drizzle, narrow stone-cobbled streets empty in predawn, ugly synth frame buildings jostled along the thin, rocky lip of the ocean crashing far below. Now I realized why the few Anduran settlements were all on its coasts. The towering wall of forest edging town up against the drop-off was overwhelming with the cold ocean wind and the roar of that openness beating against it. Closed around on all four sides, it would have been intolerably claustrophobic.
I stopped thinking at that point. I forgot about claiming my baggage. I groped along the silent, winding streets, letting my feet find their own way, my face tilted up, and up, pinned by the force of disbelief.
They couldn’t be that big. It was only an illusion. But the closer I got, the higher they soared above the buildings. I had to touch one, make sure it was real.
A closed information center huddled in the monotone dimness at the edge of town. As I climbed over its locked gate, I thought I caught a flicker of movement, a furtive shape slipping around the building behind me. I turned quickly. Only a drifting ghost of ground mist. Sound swallowed by damp. Nothing but a silent, urgent summons to the dark trees.
I shivered, shook off a chill of foreboding, and strode into the thick web of wet green.
Stone gave way to moist, spongy humus as the dense tangle of bushes closed in on me. A thin thread of trail twisted and turned through a living maze. Leaves crowded closer, drenching me with cold dew. Tentacles of mist reached out, shivered over my face, and claimed the trail as it fell away into concealed depths. I took a deep breath and waded down, groping with my feet, waist deep in the fog now, pushing through an overhang of scrub brush as icy drops showered down on me. The mist curled higher, gray creeping over me. I twisted around, craning upward. Muffled dark closed in overhead. I took another deep breath. Wet smells of soil, crushed leaves, decay. I jerked around again, grasping for bearings, groping for the hidden trail, seeing only vaguely animal shapes of moss-covered, fallen trunks. Fringed limbs of giant ferns snatching out of flat dimness to touch me with chilling fingers. A horned demon head wreathed in strangling serpents and smoke, looming suddenly over me.
My gut clenched. I pushed quickly past the rotting spur festooned with thick vines. Drops rolled down my shivering back.
I groped, tripped over a root. I fell splashing into a narrow rivulet, icy water a shock of clarity. I shook my head, crawled up a steep, bushy bank on the other side. I should have waited for light and a guide into the visitor’s enclave. But I had to touch one. I climbed on, up through soft gray slowly suffusing with light.
All at once I was out of it. Standing soaked and panting on a rocky outthrust. Looking down over the gray-drowned ravine, then up through thin, swirling mist.
Dawn slanted through them. They were all around me, shutting out the sky with a lacing of branches impossibly far overhead. Narrow ribbons of sun struck pearl halos through streamers of fog clinging to the underbrush and broad-leafed scrub trees that looked like bushes against the immense black trunks. They were straight, rising like the columns of a vaulted temple to the interwoven roof of sky.
An alien temple. I shivered. The massive trees closed me in with their green gloom. I could almost hear their ponderous breathing. Feel the oppressive weight of them, the indifferent eons of their lives pressing down on me.
Thin sun fought higher through the tangle, beams slanting into a shimmer of mist. A fern arching over me dripped cold diamonds onto my raised face. The trees stood mute in filtered dawn, trunks dark and seamless for hundreds of meters before reaching out with spreading branches. A long hush rooted me silent among them.
Somewhere, finally, a faint stirring, a whispered sigh through the forest. It swelled around me, air throbbing to a giant heartbeat. Overhead, a shrill whistle.
I startled and jerked back as bits of shadow broke out of the ceiling and fell onto me, gathered into black swarming patterns, meshed and reformed, plunged and swooped and broke over my head. There were hundreds. Gleaming blue-black, gliding on fringy wings. Shattering beams into shards of light, darting and banking all around me, piercing the hush with their cries.
They were gone in a boiling spill of black feathers. My ears echoed to the thresh of wings.
And, again, the faint stir in returning quiet. The bare shadow of movement echoing mine but never approaching. The shy whisper of presence merged with the drip of water, the touch of thin sunlight on bark, the mesh of leaves.
I blew out a breath and turned, pushing into the underbrush, shaking off the overpowering excess of green and damp silence, thrusting through bushes to the closest of the giant trees. Tough, springy stems resisted me. They sprang back, lashing my face. I ducked through them and was caught by a wiry, thorny creeper. Tugging free, I crashed and blundered forward. Another vine tripped me. I tumbled headlong, thrashing against the suddenly yielding bushes as I grabbed futilely at shoots and finally fell against moss-covered stone.
“Oooph!” I sat up, caught my breath, and pushed damp hair from my eyes, picking out the sticky leaves tangled in it.
I pushed myself upright against the craggy rock that had caught me. It was a broad escarpment, its dark, pitted surface split by long cracks and hosting a proliferation of mosses, ferns, fungi, lacy bushes with berries like purple teardrops. I craned my neck up. For a dizzy second I was looking down a dark, bottomless well, spinning into purple-black drowning depths. It wasn’t a rock formation I’d stumbled against.
I groped across the gnarled black bark. When the wall curved inward, I realized I was touching only one flaring skirt of the tree trunk.
I shook my head. I worked my way through the vines and brush around the entire trunk. It took a while. My elusive shadow followed at its quiet distance. I tried to estimate the tree’s diameter and decided I could probably fit my Casino apartment comfortably inside one gap between the flaring skirts at the base.
Damn. I was trying to grasp a whole forest in that one tree. I could feel the ferns or the moss or the bushes clinging to its ridges of lichened bark, but as far as really feeling the tree itself, it was impossible. It was too many things. It was too big. I had a word—haavriathil—but that didn’t touch it.
I scrambled up onto one of the skirts, perching among the berry bushes like another species of moss or mushroom, probably mattering to the forest even less. The hush thickened, reweaving leaves and slow breathings. I sat and listened to the silence.
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