A short story written for the Flash Fiction Challenge Must Contain on Terrible Minds using #6 from list one and #9 from list two.
Forest canopy hid the system’s binary suns and muted Jack’s long whistle. “No wonder the sensors couldn’t find anything.”
“We won’t either if you keep gawking.” Nyla focused her headlamp on the map.
Jack raised his hands in mock surrender and, coming alongside, he peered at the wrinkled page she held. Ridges, dents, and grainy lines, marred the tanned sheet in lieu of diagrams, words, or pictures. Nyla traced her gloved-fingertips along the relief, navigating by touch alone.
With a shake of his head, Jack left the Professor deciphering and skimmed the surrounding trees.
Gray trunks, each with bark as smooth as pounded bulkheads, arched into thickset branches, then to the ceiling of deep-red, fan-shaped leaves. A glance back the way they’d come showed the same sight, their footprints barely nicking the grey ground, their passage hardly bending a leaf.
Jack escaped stagnation in the struggling activity at his wrist.
The proximity locator indicated their relationship to his Lander with two increasingly separate dots. Other faint blips and beeps on the trio of screens implied a vacant world and an empty orbit beyond the forest they’d crossed half a galaxy to find before anyone else had the chance.
“This way.” Nyla strode up another incline, toward another patch of shadows, another curtain of foliage.
Jack stared after her, the path illuminated by her headlamp looking uncomfortably close to all the rest. “If you say so.”
With a mutter about star-jockeys and thick skulls, Nyla tromped through a slit in the leaves. A moment later, the sound of her footsteps, the crinkle of her map, the low murmur of her irritation, vanished. With a half-swallowed curse against academics and their theories, Jack followed.
Altitude stole any thought of restarting conversation. Instead, Jack sucked in heavy air saturated with the smell of earth and decay. With each curve, each incline, each endless upward plod, sweat sprung. His legs numbed. His nose tingled.
Nyla’s marching pace, however, never wavered.
The effort led to thinner canopy. Cracks allowed in the system’s golden and pale blue light, a cooler breeze, and provided a brief glimpse of clouds streaking in from the coming night.
Up ahead, Nyla took the steepest route after a last check on the map, and wheezed, “Got. To be. Here.”
Jack ground his thumb against his sternum and, reaching the leafy ceiling, he promised his legs, the account waiting for the remainder of the Professor’s fare, and the systems caught in between, the hike would be worth it. If, of course, the Professor was right.
Popping through the canopy, he brought down his visor, dulling the violet glow. The tinted shield dimmed the ruddy slope of leaves, creating a sea the color of blood. Jack shuddered at the thought, at the reality behind the mirage, at the civilization soaked into the forest floor. Turning to Nyla and her map, he stilled the edge of the flapping page.
“Where to next?”
She tapped the spot where he presumed they were, and then ran her fingertip along another wordless ridge.
“We have to find the beginning,” she brought the page closer and squinted, “maybe the end.”
Jack swept an arm at the scene. “How do you find the end or the beginning of this?”
“That’s what it says.”
She aimed her narrowed gaze at him. “You’re doubting me now?”
“I’ve doubted that from the start.” He flicked the map and she snatched the wrinkled page away.
“Then why didn’t you stay on your precious Lander?”
Jack hooked his thumbs at his belt. “I may not have all those letters behind my name, but I know when someone’s going to follow through no matter what common sense may say. The least I can do is be sure you make it back from this insanity in one piece.”
She blinked once, then in a rapid flutter. “Do you expect a thank you?”
He shrugged. “I expect you to finish this before we get spotted and taken into custody.”
“The Council won’t arrest me, and I’d stop them before they locked you up.”
“I’m not worried about the Council.” Another check proved nothing on his screens hinting at them, the Republic, or anyone else in the vicinity, but the limits of each sensor felt as dimming as his visor.
Nyla pulled the map close. “Has someone else arrived?”
“No,” Jack returned to the sea of leaves, the blood darkening to char, “but it won’t take long.”
“I can’t let them find this,” the map rattled in her hands, “we can’t let them figure this out. You know what it would mean.”
“I do.” The darkness in the leaves seemed to spread, blotting out the sky, the system, the galaxies he could navigate by the stars alone. “So finish this.”
“Right.” She checked her map and, stepping aside, Nyla began turning in a slow circle.
While she murmured memorized prophesies and riddles, Jack pinched a leaf’s stem and tugged. A breeze picked up, waving the freed fan back and forth, the ribs slapping against his hand in comical reprimand.
“A beginning,” Nyla whispered, “or an end.”
“The only end seems to be the edge of the forest.” He pitched the leaf in the direction where his screen promised the Lander waited. The canopy curved downward, the darkening sea disturbed by the restless toss of leaves. “Or maybe that’s a beginning?”
Nyla didn’t seem to hear him. She stared at where he’d indicated, then pivoted forty-five degrees and stopped again. Repeating the stiff shift and stop three more times completed the circuit. She lifted the map, found another line of code in the bumpy texture, and then lowered it with a laugh.
“How could I be so dense?”
“I’m assuming you don’t want me to answer that.”
A half-smile tempered the glare she shot at him. “Where do you think we are?”
“On a hill. In the middle of a forest. On a snubbed planet no one’s been on in centuries.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong.”
“No?” Jack checked his screens. “Our elevation’s gone up and I’m pretty sure your route’s taken us past every tree on this rock.”
“They’re branches grown into the ground, not trunks.” She chuckled again and rotated. “This isn’t a forest. It’s a tree, Captain. One tree, grown in a perfect circle. One big, beautiful, ancient tree.”
“I think the air’s getting to you.”
She batted away the concern. “Where does any tree begin or end?”
He scratched his head, but little related to biology stirred. “The roots?”
“Or the tips.”
She neared the twig where a broken end remained from the leaf he’d torn, pale sap tinged orange oozing. Kneeling put Nyla at eye level with the other fans. When she lifted the map, the nearest leaf rested gently against the wrinkled surface.
Jack leaned closer. “They fit.”
The map tensed, the ground shuddered, and Jack caught Nyla as she flailed and stumbled back. The map, however, didn’t tumble. The leaf it touched held on, solid as a hatch clamp.
Jack lifted his visor as the dark leaf finished blending with the wrinkled page. Another shudder raced through the ground, rattling the trees—the branches he corrected—of the massive tree they’d climbed.
“What’s it doing, Professor?”
She gripped his arm. “Waking up.”
“You mean turning on?”
Another quake flung them apart and left them clutching anything stable. Winds stirred, gust wailed. Invisible tendrils raked across their gear and rippled the canopy with ever-larger peaks.
“Usually,” shouted Jack above the racket and windy shrieks, “you start a ship when you’re on the inside.”
Catching her balance, Nyla spread her feet wide. “I didn’t see any doors, did you?”
“You had the map.”
Her attention leapt to the leaf—the ignition Jack realized—and the map-turned-key awakening the vessel a civilization had given their lives to hide and the Council, the Republic, and every other galactic faction had spent treasure troves to rediscover. Increasing gusts made the surrounding foliage swish, showing off the metallic gleam of branches and the inner rivulets of brightening orange trickling through splitting bark.
Through his soles, Jack sensed the power core rumbling to life. The air crackled as energy flowed into every leaf and forgotten technology based in organics rather than mechanical construction roused from an ancient slumber.
For a fleeting moment, Jack wondered if piloting this ship would be any different from his own but the world bucked again and he set aside the concern for more immediate problems.
“What do we do now, Professor?”
Nyla opened her mouth but it took another quake to shake words off her tongue.
“The map only told me how to find it. For now?” Jack’s stomach twisted when she crouched in the shadows, her eyes wide and bright white when they met his. “Hold on.”