51. TROUBLE ON ETKE 12*

Someone uses a stun-gun on Tony.
He wakens in a forest of ferns on Etke 12.

Length : 5 300 words.

 1

WHERE WAS I?

 

Troubleshooter Tony is giving this report.

I wakened, lying on my side. I sat up, and looked around. I was in a big grassy clearing in a forest. Forest? They looked more like ferns than trees, but they were at least twice as tall as me, and they were a weird colour. Light green, with a blue tinge. Like the sea on those tropical holiday posters.

Where was I? I hadn’t a clue. This was a planet I’d never seen.

How had I got here? I hadn’t a clue about that either. As my mind cleared, I tried to remember. I was crossing the comm centre on Vinson 5. It was quiet; it must be night-time there. I felt myself falling, unconscious. I had a hazy memory, of wakening for a moment, and hearing people talking but, the next I really remembered, I was lying here. I was still wearing my uniform – like a grey tracksuit, with dark green bands round the chest and cuffs. My stun-gun was on its clip at my waist, but my wrist unit was gone.

Somebody must’ve used a stun-gun on me, and brought me here. Why? The more I thought about it, the less I liked it.

I stood up, for a careful look round. The ankle-high grass, the same colour as the ferns, stretched smooth all round me. Nobody was in sight. Nothing moved except the ferns, which seemed to shimmer in the breeze.

What should I do? From the middle of the clearing, I could see anybody (or any wild animal) that came near, but I could also be seen by anybody (or any wild animal), lurking in those ferns. I didn’t like that feeling. I decided to have a closer look at the ferns.

I crouched, with my stun-gun in my hand, studying every clump of ferns at one side of the clearing. They looked innocent. If anybody was watching me from there, they were keeping well out of sight.

I ran through the grass, about fifty metres, to the place I’d checked. When I got nearer, I went more cautiously, gun pointing at the ferns, checking them with my eyes, ears and mind. Being a young native of Sol 3, I can sense the minds of the people of most other planets, but I sensed nothing there.

I dodged behind the nearest clump of ferns, and crouched, with my finger on the trigger of my stun-gun, watching, listening and mind-sensing. The clearing stayed quiet.

From here, the ferns looked even weirder. They came out of the ground in clumps. Each stem was as thick as my arm, and it got thinner as it went up. Long thin leaves grew from the sides, like long strands of grass. The stems and strands were soft, but tough. The grass in the clearing must be the same; I couldn’t see my track through it.

What now? I felt safer, hidden here. I decided to wait and watch. If somebody had left me there, they might come back, to check on me. So I stood there for ages – while nothing happened.

But I couldn’t stay there for ever. I would wait a little longer – while I counted to a thousand – then do a bit of exploring.

At 311, I had a fright, and nearly pulled the trigger of the stun-gun, when something moved behind the next clump of ferns. But I relaxed when a rabbit-like animal hopped a few metres into the clearing, and looked around. Its fur was pale blue-green, with darker streaks. If it saw me, it must’ve decided I was harmless, because it put its head down, eating the grass. I went back to my counting.

At 600, I got fed up of it. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to stay in the same place for too long. It would be wiser to scout around.

I took a last look at the clearing. The only sign of life was the rabbit.

I went deeper into the ferns. It wasn’t hard. The clumps were growing so close together that their fronds merged, but they were so bendy that it was easy to push through the biggest gaps, although I couldn’t see far ahead. My finger was on the trigger of my stun-gun, and my eyes, ears and mind were alert.

I had one fright, when I sensed a mind not far away – until I recognised the signal. It was another rabbit – harmless. I sensed its spike of alarm as it saw me, and I spotted it as it dashed away between the clumps.

I stopped, with a worrying thought. Could I find my way back to the clearing? Should I check? I thought I knew the way I’d come, but it wasn’t straight, winding round the clumps of ferns. Above my head, the fronds waved against a bright but cloudy sky. I couldn’t see the planet’s sun, so I couldn’t take my direction from it.

I tried to forget my worry. It was a big clearing. I could hardly miss it. In the meantime, I would go on a bit farther.

As I pushed past the next clump of ferns, I sensed another mind, somewhere to my left. It wasn’t a peaceful mind like the rabbit. It was the cruel mind of a hunting animal. A predator.

My legs wanted to run, but I stopped them. That would make the animal notice me. I stopped, deep in a clump of ferns, and held my stun-gun ready. The animal would never see me there. If I stood still for a while, it would go away.

I stood still for a while, but it didn’t go away. Its mind signal grew stronger. It was coming towards me.

I waited, hearing the rustling as it pushed through the ferns. I didn’t see it until a blue, wolf-like head poked through the fronds less than a metre in front of me. It sniffed, and turned to look for me. I sensed the surge of delight in its mind as it pounced.