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Wilding offered Brainard a hand. Brainard stared as if he were unable to comprehend the gesture.
The enlisted members of the crew ran back to their officers. Leaf picked up Brainard's rifle by the sling and demanded, "What was that? What the hell was that?"
"Goddam if I know," the ensign said in an emotionless voice. He levered himself to his knees, then stood upright. His bandolier swayed, making the magazines clatter against one another.
Wilding rubbed his hand on his thigh to give it something to do. "It's an ice mat," he said, looking at the crystalline form. Pale, stunted shoots sprang from nodes over the spikes driven into the tree. "A seed pod of sorts. It's descended from a thistlethe parent plant is, I mean."
Brainard took his rifle from Leaf. He touched the barrel; winced as the hot metal burned him. "All right," he said. "Let's get moving."
Wilding had forgotten the weight of the pack during the moments of panic. Now the straps cut into his shoulders. He was suddenly sure that the forty-pound loads which he had setconservatively, he thoughtwere too heavy, at least for him.
"Yes sir," he said as strode back into the jungle.
The edges of the cleared area were already a tangle of thorns and poison. Wilding reopened the path with the powered cutting bar he carried, one of the two in K67's equipment locker before the crash. Caffey fell in behind him with the machine-gun.
"But it was alive," Leaf insisted from mid-way back in the line. "It wasn't just falling, it was coming for us."
"It doesn't have a mind," Wilding said. He knew he should concentrate on the terrain in front of him, but a part of his mind insisted that he dwell on Ensign Brainard's cold courage. "It has a very discriminating infra-red sensor, though. It would have avoided an open flame, but the CO lured it into a charred stump that had cooled to just above blood heat."
That was the second part of what Brainard had done. First, while Wilding ran in terror thinking, Let it take one of the others, the CO used the hot, expanding propellant gases of his rifle to draw the ice mat toward himself. Brainard's combination of nerve and diamond-hard calculation was almost beyond conception.
The interphone only worked through K67's computer, but the visor-display compasses in the helmets were self-powered. Wilding set his on a vector to the peak. He began to follow it.
Almost immediately, the ground lurched up in an outcrop too steep for the thin soil to cling to its surface. Wilding gripped rock, lifted himself, and kicked for a foothold from which he could push up the rest of the way.
A gigantic fig overhung the outcrop. The lower twenty feet of its folded bark bubbled with bright red spittle. A colony of scale insects hid within the frothy protection.
"Don't touch the red!" Wilding shouted. "Anything that showy is probably poisonous."
"Give me a hand," Caffey said peremptorily. "Sir." He lifted his machine-gun.
Wilding grasped it by the barrel. He almost overbalanced. The gun weighed nearly thirty pounds with its ammunition drum.
The torpedoman clambered up the rock and took the weapon back. He bent to offer Yee, the third man in line, a hand.
A stand of yellow-barked willows was in the direct path. Wilding skirted them. There was a broad corridor through the copse, but bones and the sections of insect exoskeleton there showed its danger.
Trees at the front and back of the corridor wove closed when a large creature stepped within. The boles in the middle of the track squeezed down slowly and crushed their victim into a nitrate supplement for the poor soil.
"Okay," said Caffey, "that's how." The torpedoman panted softly, like a dog, between phrases. "About the ice mat, I mean. But how come? Or does it just like to kill things?"
"Like you, you mean?" Leaf gibed from behind them.
"Hell, like us, if you want to be that way," said Caffey. "Like anybody in a Free Company."
"Not me, Fish," Leaf replied. "I just" the motorman paused to grunt his way over a steep patch "keep the fans spinning."
Wilding's whole body hurt. He swung the cutting bar mechanically because it had become too much mental effort to decide when a sweep of the blade was necessary.
"The ice mat needs nutrients to grow," he said.
He spoke aloud, but he wasn't sure that his words were distinct enough for the torpedoman to understand. "Animals are the best source of complex nutriments," he continued. "Insects, reptiles, it doesn't matter. Any animal has to be able to modify its body temperature against the ambient to function, so that's what the seed, the ice mat, homes on."
The lecture took Wilding's mind off the pain of moving; but the pain was still there, waiting for him.
The moss hanging from branches a hundred feet in the air was so thick that its shade had cleared the ground beneath to sandy red clay. Wilding altered course slightly from the compass vector to take advantage of the open area.
Through interstices in the trunks of moss-hung trees, Wilding glimpsed a steep terrace covered with bamboo. That was going to be a problem. They would either have to go around the tough, jointed grass or cut through it. Given that the belt might encircle the peakand might be hundreds of feet deepneither alternative was a good one. Perhaps
Caffey and Yee both shouted. Caffey's voice choked off in mid-bleat.
Wilding spun around. The weight of his pack threw him off-balance. A strand of moss had spooled down and wrapped around the torpedoman's neck. Other strands bobbed just beneath the main mass on the branch, preparing to follow.
The tendril trying to strangle Caffey had snagged the barrel of his machine-gun as well. The gun muzzle crushed painfully against the torpedoman's forehead, but the rigid steel saved his larynx.
Yee fired two deafening shots, trying vainly to blast the gray streamer apart. The moss parted like tissue paper when Wilding swiped his cutting bar through it.
Released tension lifted the severed strand fifty feet in the air. The tip continued to contract around its victim. Wilding and Yee tugged against the moss with their free hands. The cutting bar was too clumsy to use near Caffey's throat.
The short blade of Leaf's multitool snicked through the loop of moss. Half came away in Wilding's hand. The remainder uncoiled and dropped to the ground.
"Fish!" Leaf shouted. "Fish! You okay?"
The torpedoman sat down heavily. His eyes were unfocused. There was a line of red spots across his throat.
Wilding looked down at his own hands. Miniature thorns in the moss had pricked him also. He hoped the points weren't poisonous, though the inevitable infection would be bad enough.
"Do you need help?" Brainard demanded from the end of the line.
"Come on!" Wilding snarled, grabbing Caffey by one shoulder. "Help him! Move!"
Yee took Caffey's other arm. They pounded through the deadly clearing together. The torpedoman was barely able to keep his legs moving in time with those of the men supporting him, but for the moment Wilding forgot about weight and pain. Leaf, the machine-gun's sling in one hand and his multitool in the other, was on their heels.
When he reached the bamboo, Wilding looked back over his shoulder. The whole crew followed at a staggering run. There were no further problems. The moss reacted too slowly to be a serious threat to men who were prepared for it.
Wilding gasped for breath. A clearing meant danger. It was his fault. He'd been too tired to realize the obvious, and it cost
"Caffey, how do you feel?" Ensign Brainard demanded before Wilding could remember to ask.
The torpedoman massaged his throat. "I'm okay," he wheezed. "Just gimme a minute, okay?"
The bamboo shoots were thumb-thick. The stems were yellow, and the lower leaves were yellow-brown.
The undersurface of each leaf was a hooked mat. The foliage began to tremble outward as the plants sensed human warmth.
God alone knew how thick the belt was.
Wilding bent and swung his cutting bar. Contact triggered the 20-inch blade in a petulant whine. Stems toppled, but their leaves clutched at Wilding's arm as they fell.
"Right," Brainard said. His voice was as calm as that of an accounting adding figures. "We need to get moving. Yee, take the Number Two slot and Caffey will fall in just in front of me for a while."
"Ah . . . ?" Yee said. "How about the gun?"
"Fuck you," said Caffey. Instinct, not intellect snarled in his voice. The injured man hugged his heavy weapon to him with both arms.
Wilding resumed cutting. The bamboo rustled as it fell. Sometimes the stems remained upright, gripped by the mass of their neighbors. Wilding forced them aside. His uniform was in shreds, and a sheen of blood coated his arms.
The bamboo went on forever. Wilding cut, and stepped, and cut. He lost track of time and was only conscious of dull pain.
"Hey," a voice said.
Wilding swung. The bar cut on either stroke, but the rotator muscles of his shoulder screamed with pain after ten minutes of alternate backhands.
"Sir?" said the voice. "I hear something."
Wilding swung. He couldn't see for the sweat in his eyes and the burning red haze which overlaid his mind.
Yee grabbed him by the shoulder. The bar dropped from Wilding's nerveless fingers. "Sir!" the gunner said. "I hear something."
So did Wilding, now that his body had stopped moving. His mind re-engaged. A rhythmic crunching sound, amazingly loud. He couldn't tell what direction it came from because of the scattering effect of the dense stems.
Wilding looked over his shoulder. Leaf had paused six feet behind Yee; the next man in line was hidden by the walls of the ragged trail. Nobody wanted to bunch up here. . . .
"Pass the word back to Mr Brainard," Wilding whispered to the nervous gunner. "Tell him that"
The wall of bamboo crashed forward. Wilding shouted and grabbed for his cutting bar. The net of interlaced stems sprang down and held him as immobile as an insect in amber.
A three-ton grasshopper smashed its way across the trail. Its legs were modified to graviportal stumps. One of its clawed feet came down squarely on the net of bamboo which held Wilding.
The stems took up some of the shock, but Wilding screamed in despair as he felt tendons go in his right ankle.
A dozen of them sauntered down the Palm Walk together, giddy with drink and the odor of the tropical blooms among the trees. The clubs were still open, but establishments in this restricted area had no need for garish advertisement. The entrances were lighted in pastels which set off the broad corridor rather than illuminating it.
Wilding was at the front of the loose group. The woman on his arm was a short-haired blonde from a cadet branch of the McLain family. He thought her name was Glory, but he was too drunkenly cautious to risk a scene if he were wrong.
The blonde said, "I want to goooh!"
Wilding tried to fold her in his arms. "I want to go ooh with you too, darling," he said. "Let's"
The blonde twisted away from him. Wilding goggled at her in amazement.
"Oh my god!" grumbled one of the men. "Is Tootles still around? He stayed in the Azure, didn't he?"
"Hal?" called a woman's half-familiar voice.
Wilding turned. The figure shambling toward him was only a blur against the arbor in which she had waited, but her eyes were well adapted to the Palm Walk. "Oh, Hal," she blurted, "thank God it's you! You've got to help me."
"Patrol!" the blonde shrieked. "Patrol! Where are you, you lazy bastards?"
There were discreet cameras and audio pick-ups every hundred yards down the corridor. As soon as the blonde screamed, a bright blue strobe light flashed a quarter mile away at the guarded entrance which separated the Palm Walk from the public areas of Wyoming Keep.
"Now, you haven't any business here, madam," Wilding said, queasy with the shock of the unknown. It couldn't be anyone he knew. He still couldn't make out the woman's features, but her body odor and the stench of cheap perfume flared his nostrils. "If you don't cause any trouble, then I'm sure the Patrol will let you"
"Hal, my God, it's me, Francine!" the figure cried. "You've got to help me see Tootles."
Good God, it was Francine.
"Tootles picked her up somewhere," a man explained to his companion. "Then she found him in bed with her maid and hit him with a bottle. She tried to kill him!"
A Patrol scooter, silent except for the hiss of its tires against the pavement, sped toward the disturbance. Its strobe pulsed across Francine's swollen features. She looked as though she had applied her make-up in the dark.
"Tootles isn't here, Francine," Wilding said. He wondered if she was armed.
Chauncey Callahan, Tootles, had started the evening with their party but he'd dropped away hours ago. Nobody else in the group knew Francine as well as Wilding himself did.
Francine snatched his wrist. Her trembling grip had no strength, but her false nails felt like the touch of broken glass. "Hal, you're my friend," she wheezed. "You've got to explain to Tootles that it was just a mistake, that I love him."
"Sent her back where she belonged, of course," said an ice-voiced woman in answer to a question Wilding hadn't heard. "Which was nowhere."
The Patrol scooter pulled up so hard that it squealed. Three men jumped out. One of them swept the group with a hand-held spotlight. The white glare steadied on Francine's raddled, desperate face. Her dilated eyes glowed red in the beam.
"Hal, please," she begged as the other two Patrolmen seized her elbows. Her nails left scratches as she lost her grip on Wilding. "Hal, you remember me! You remember me!"
Francine's blouse was of a natural material from the planetary surface, a soft clinging fabric that fluoresced in white and blue-white light. The cloth blazed now in spotlit radiance, but that only emphasized the stains and tears which had made the garment too worthless to barter for drugs.
Francine pulled the blouse open. Her breasts sagged. "You remember!" she screeched.
"Get her out of here!" Wilding shouted at he turned his face.
One of the Patrolmen injected Francine with something. She sprawled limp and let the pair of them load her into the scooter.
The third Patrolman switched off the spotlight. The strobe pulsed twice more, then cut off also.
"I'm very sorry for this problem, ladies and gentlemen," the senior Patrolman said. His tone was unctuous over an edge of real concern. This could mean his rank, his job, oror he could fall back into the bleak emptiness reserved for those who had basked in the favor of the powerful, and then lost that favor. Empty days filled with algal protein and holonews images of the glittering folks with whom he had once been in daily contact. A life like that of Francine, drooling in the back of a Patrol vehicle.
"Unfortunately, the man at the entrance recognized the woman and didn't check her name against the updated admissions list," the Patrolman continued. The filament of his spotlight was a fading orange blur. "I trust that none of you were injured, or . . . ?"
"You useless bastards!" the blonde shrilled. "We could have been"
Wilding grabbed the woman's shoulder. "Shut up," he said very distinctly.
Glory, if her name was Glory, gasped and nestled against him.
Wilding waved at the scooter and its contents. "Get her out of here," he demanded. His voice rose. "Get her out of my life!"
"At once, Mr Wilding," said the Patrolman in relief. He leaped aboard the vehicle. The driver had already started it rolling.
The scooter sped back toward the entrance to the Palm Walk and oblivion. Its tires keened like a woman sobbing.
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