The Mind of Astra, Part III

When Cadet Marsh had announced that he’d found a way to communicate with the alien species, he’d expected praise and adoration- or at least a friendly smile and pat on the thorax. What he didn’t expect was for Cadet Kyrie to groan, roll her eyes, and say, “someone, please, shoot me. Put me out of my misery.”
She did anyway.
“Umm, Kyrie, I know you’re scared of the organisms, but…”
“I’m not scared of them. Being torn apart and eaten by alien trees is nothing compared to my fate,” Kyrie replied.
Marsh boggled at her.
“Look behind you,” Gibbs said with a resigned sigh.
Marsh turned and saw a hover-bike, gliding easily over the surface of the planet, coming from the direction of the ship. A young, male human, with messy black hair and a cocky grin, was driving the bike with his feet as he leaned back against the seat with his hands behind his head. He made a wide circle around the group of Cadets, and then stopped.
“Hey guys,” he said cheerfully. “I’m here to rescue you.”
The group was silent for a moment- a silence punctuated by the perpetual quiet of the alien world. Then Gibbs sighed, stepped forward, and spoke.
“You’re here to rescue us from what?”
“I dunno,” the boy said, dismounting. “You guys have been out here forever, so I assumed you needed to be rescued.”
“Well, we don’t. Go back, Bres.” Kyrie said firmly.
“I can’t, baby. The captain ordered me to stay on the ship. Plus, I stole her hover-bike. If I go back, she’ll throw me in the brig.”
Marsh grinned. Bres wasn’t an intelligent human- at least, by any measurable standard- but he did know how to have fun.
Kyrie was less impressed. “Bres, as leader of this expedition, it is my duty to take you into custody, and escort you back to the ship.” She fumbled around in her knapsack, retrieving a pair of magnetic restrainers and a stun weapon, which she tried to wield menacingly.
“Stellar! I’ve always wanted to be your prisoner, beautiful.” Bres held out his wrists and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
Kyrie blanched and quickly put the restraints and the weapon away.
Bres shrugged, and turned to Marsh. “So, if you guys aren’t in danger, then what’s been taking you so long? The captain and I fixed the ship’s hull ages ago, and all you guys had to do was figure out why the radio control thingies don’t work.”
Marsh sighed. “We can’t find the source of the radio interference. Gibb thinks that the trees might know something-“
“Wait, the trees?” Bres interrupted.
“For the last time, they aren’t actually trees,” Kyrie said.
“Anyway,” Marsh continued, “I was just about to tell everyone, before you arrived, that I’ve found a pattern in the radio signals.”
Gibbs and Kyrie both turned sharply toward Marsh.
“The captain said that the interference was just a lot of noise,” Kyrie said.
“Yes, it does seem like random noise, at first, but there is a subtle pattern. It’s organic, almost fractal, but it is a definite pattern.”
Kyrie’s face lit up. “Can you decipher its meaning?”
“No, but I’m going to send out a signal of my own- the usual first-contact language cipher. Hopefully, the aliens are more intelligent than I am.”
Kyrie bit her lip. “It sounds like a long-shot. Go ahead and broadcast your signal, and we’ll continue to examine the trees.”
Bres turned and started to strut toward the forest. “Great, let’s go.”
“Wait, Bres, we have to watch them from here. The trees could be dangerous,” Kyrie shrieked.
“Good. Danger is my middle name.”
“I’ll report you,” she threatened.
“I can’t get in worse trouble than I’m already in,” Bres countered.
“Finally, a mutiny!” Marsh said enthusiastically. He slung his radio over his shoulder and followed Bres.
“Wait!” Kyrie called.
Gibbs hesitated, looking first to the forest with her longing eyes, and then anxiously back at Kyrie. Finally she heaved a heavy sigh, and ran after the others.
“Get back here now! That’s an order.” Cadet Kyrie called.
She kept calling after the others until her throat was hoarse, but her voice just echoed impotently in the chilly, evening air. She finally gave up and sat behind the boulder to wait for the others, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
Gibbs wrapped her arms around herself and shivered as she gazed around the strange forest. It was unsettlingly unlike any forest on Earth. There was no quiet whisper of wind rustling leaves, no chirping birds or humming insects, and no stirring of fallen leaves or blossoms underfoot. The trees just jutted out of the planet’s rocky surface, still and silent.
Gibbs shivered again, and turned up the heat on her electric jacket.
Bres, completely unruffled, stepped up to a tree. “How do you talk to one of these, anyway?”
He rapped sharply on the tree’s trunk. “Hey, what’s this thing made of? Plastic?”

Marsh reached out and touched the tree. “I think the trunk is made of keratin, like your fingernails.”
“Oh, neat. These flowers are pretty weird, too.” Bres took a small laser knife from his pocket and cut off a blossom.
The eerie stillness was immediately shattered. All of the trees began to shudder and shake at once. The tree Bres had cut thrashed wildly, knocking him to the ground. Marsh’s radio emitted an ear-splitting screech.
***
Cadet Kyrie lay on her back, staring at the wildly thrashing trees in complete bewilderment. Seeing the blank expression in her eyes, a bystander might have thought that her brain had shut off completely. In fact, it was actually performing the very tricky function of switching from complete resentment, and a desire that her friends meet their certain doom in the alien forest, to concern for her friends, and the desire to rescue them from certain doom. Several synapses had to override her usual fear impulse, and tap into the underdeveloped courage centers of the brain.
In other words, Kyrie was in shock.
Luckily, Kyrie had been gifted with a very efficient brain, so within very little time, Kyrie was back on her feet and reaching for her stun weapon. Her brain performed another tricky operation, and she said, “wait, do those things even have a nervous system to stun?”
She put away the expensive stun weapon, picked up a rock, and rushed toward the forest.
When she reached the trees, she threw herself on the ground and crawled under the flailing branches, awkwardly pulling herself forward with her elbows while clutching her rock. She made her way toward the hideous screeching noise, ignoring the more sensible urge to run in the opposite direction.
Soon she could see her friends at the edge of a small clearing. Cadets Gibbs and Marsh each had one of Bres’s arms, and were attempting to pull him away from a tree, which had one of its branches wound tightly around his leg. Kyrie crawled over and lifted her rock, ready to bring it crashing down on the branch. A small hand grabbed her wrist.
Kyrie looked up. Gibbs was shouting something unintelligible.
“What?” Kyrie shouted back.
Gibbs let go of her wrist and reached over to turn off Marsh’s radio. Immediately, the cacophony stopped. Gibbs let out a sigh of relief.
“There, that’s better. I was saying, ‘don’t hurt the tree.’ Bres cut off one of the flowers, and that’s when they went crazy.”
“Bres did what?” Kyrie cried. “He’s a menace. We should just let the tree have him.”
“I don’t think the tree really wants him,” Gibbs replied. “It’s just lashing out-“
“Stop pulling me,” Bres cried. “The tree is squeezing.”
“Wait, do you still have the flower?” Gibbs asked.
“In- in my pocket,” Bres gasped.
Gibbs let go of Bres’s arm and reached into his trousers pocket, soon producing the blossom. It was small and white, but not at all delicate. It glinted in the sunlight in an almost metallic way.
The branch stopped squeezing, and uncoiled itself from Bres’s leg.
Gibbs held out the blossom, and gently touched it to the end of the branch. For a moment, the blossom glowed with a soft, white light, and then the light traveled from the blossom, down the branch and to the trunk of the tree. All of the other trees became still once more. The blossom fused itself back onto the branch, and the branch returned to its original position. Once more, the forest was silent and still.
“Let’s get out of here,” Kyrie urged.
***

The trip back to camp was maddeningly slow. Bres couldn’t walk, so Marsh and Kyrie had to help carry him back. They had to stop by the rock where Kyrie had left her knapsack, and wait for her to check every item, to make sure nothing was stolen. Bres was the only one who attempted to make conversation, which mostly consisted of him exclaiming from time to time, “that was totally stellar!”
When they arrived at camp, Kyrie almost dropped Bres, partly from annoyance, but mostly from surprise. She fumbled to keep her hold on him while trying her best to stand at attention.
“Captain Geneva, Ma’am!” she cried, attempting to salute, but managing only an awkward bow.
“At ease, Cadet,” the Captain said. She was standing in the middle of the messy encampment in her clean, white uniform, with her hair pulled into a sleek bun, while examining the mussed, tired cadets with a critical eye.
Captain Geneva was a tall, strikingly beautiful woman. She had a lithe, graceful figure, a perfect peaches and cream complexion, and gently glowing, violet bionic eyes. She was graced with the type of statuesque beauty that commanded instant respect and fear, from all but one person.
“Jonas Bres, you are a disappointment to your entire family,” she said, one of her electronic eyes on the injured boy, while the other still surveyed the cadets. “I should never have allowed you to tag along. I knew you would endanger the mission. You can say goodbye to your letter of recommendation. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure you’re never allowed into the academy.”
“But Aunt Willa-“ Bres began.
“Not another word. You’re spending the rest of the journey in the brig. Now, Cadet Kyrie, kindly explain what Bres has done, and why you allowed it to happen.”
Kyrie’s face burned bright red as she told the Captain everything that had happened so far. After she finished, the Captain shook her head and sighed.
“Cadet Gibbs, get the portable physician from my knapsack, and see to Jonas. Cadet Marsh, explain to me why you decided it was a good idea to follow my prion-brained nephew into the forest.”
“Well, I thought we’d learn more about the organisms if we examined them up close- and I’m glad we did. We’ve learned an immense amount- we’ve learned exactly what we needed to know.”
Kyrie looked at Marsh blankly. “We have?”
“Of course we have! We’ve confirmed that the trees are definitely the source of the radio interference. As soon as the trees reacted, the signals grew more intense. I’ve been broadcasting our first-contact information for a few hours, Captain. Hopefully, we’ll be able to communicate soon.”
He handed the radio to the captain with a grin. The Captain eyed him warily, took the radio, and turned it on.
For a few moments, there was only static. Then the static seemed to coalesce into a rough, alien approximation of the human voice. The weird distorted voice simply said, “who are you?”

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