The Tree

By Peter Billingham

The Tallian cruiser dropped out of hyperspace into a great circle orbit around the blue planet.

A ripple of excitement ran round the ship as the planet's vital statistics began to come through. Adequate oxygen, in a perfectly breathable atmosphere; surface temperatures covering the normal range for Tallians; a positive abundance of water, and almost no harmful radiation.

Unfortunately the planet spun madly, turning almost 400 times during a single passage round its sun, a positively stroboscopic rate of change from night to day for Tallians whose home planet turned only ten times during a similar transit.

There was an abundance of life and the only negative factor was the presence of a few semi-intelligent bipeds.

These were just at the stage of making primitive radio and video transmissions, from which it had been possible to evaluate their social development. The ship's psychologist thought this was so belligerent that he proposed eliminating the species altogether. He claimed this step could only benefit the universe.

The captain summoned a meeting of his senior officers and after a brief discussion it was decided to make a careful record of the planet's status and call back in a few turns. There would be time enough then for any disinfection that might be required.

Back in his cabin the ship's doctor brought the usual bad news.

"One of the ratings has seeded himself."

"Why do they do it" he asked. "Every time we come across an attractive-looking planet there are always a few who go into stasis -- no matter how poor the prospects."

"For most of us it's an involuntary reaction," commented the doctor defensively, "the question is, what do we do with him?"

"There are suitable areas in the northern latitudes which are virtually uninhabited by the dominant species. I suggest we plant him there. A bonus for the scientists is that they will be able to monitor his adaptation to the rapid rotation."

The planting was done, with the usual ceremonial, by a small group that landed under cover of one of the brief periods of darkness.

* * *

Big Jack humped a load of pelts onto the counter at the trading post, and began to complain about how hard it was to make a living these days. It was his usual tactic to coerce Joe Dunjun, the trader, into offering a slightly better price.

Joe smiled quietly to himself. His was the only trading store for about three hundred miles. In any case Big Jack would spend practically every cent he was given right there. Joe had nothing to lose by being a bit generous, and it was this apparent generosity that brought his old customers back time after time.

The business over they sat quietly chewing a plug of tobacco and trading stories about the acquaintances they shared.

"Nice musk-rat pelts you had this time," commented Joe, "bit of a change from the skins you and Oslo used to bring in. By the way, what happened to him?"

"I was hoping you were going to be able to tell me that," replied Jack. "Hasn't he been in?"

"He was here about a year ago. Complaining about the shortage of mink and beaver as usual. Said he was going to try one of the tributaries up the Thelon river. Said he knew a stretch that had never seen a hunter."

"Not again! It was mainly on account of that old red-skin yarn that we split up. When those envy-mentals, or whatever they call themselves, sabotaged the fur trade it got real hard to make a living. I wanted to move further south and go for musk-rat. He was dead set on finding that lost valley.

Joe handed Jack a mug of thick black coffee.

"A few months back I fell through the snow into a crevasse and only managed to get out by the skin of my teeth. That was the good thing about working with Oslo -- he saved my life a couple of times.

Joe nodded. "It's dangerous working alone."

"I keep hoping I'll bump into him one day and find he's worked that phantom valley out of his system. I'd half hoped we might get together again."

"Tell you one thing," said Joe, "your pelts were a lot better when Oslo was doing the skinning. I always said he could steal the skin off a fox and have it walk away afterwards."

"But if he went up the Thelon he should have been back long ago," Jack reasoned. "Ain't no place else he could sell his furs, and if the trapping was as good as he thought, he would have had too many skins to move by now."

"A lot of trappers have gone in search of that valley," said Joe, "but none as I know, ever found it. Guess he may have had an accident. Think we should tell the Mounties?"

Big Jack sat quiet for a minute or two before answering.

"Hate to think of him dying on his own up some God-forsaken tributary of the Thelon. Think I'll go take a look. I owe him that much."

He got up and examined a map of the territory that Joe had hung on the wall.

"When we parted he was full of his new valley and I got the impression it was round here," he said, stabbing the map with his finger. "You call the Rangers on your radio and tell them where I'm headed and I'll leave a trail they can follow."

* * *

"There's another one down there," said Mark, pointing to a line of stones making a crude arrow in the short grass that grew beside the river. It was clearly visible from the helicopter and showed that Big Jack had left the Thelon at that point.

Bob Morgan, the pilot, swung the chopper round and headed up the new valley. "I wonder if Jack is still riding on his gut," he said, "or if he's found one of Oslo's markers."

"Your guess is as good as mine," Mark retorted, thinking to himself that Bob was just voicing his thoughts.

About fifteen miles further they saw another arrow and continued on upstream with both men scanning the river banks.

Mark revelled in the wild beauty of the scenery. It was typical of a valley in the shield area, he thought, very wide and with the river winding leisurely from one side to the other. The inside banks were shallow with a fringe of water-worn pebbles and he noted that they were clad in a light coat of arctic grass -- easy going for a seasoned trapper like Big Jack.

"We're now almost 60 miles upstream and we'd 'a seen his arrow for sure if he had passed this way" commented Bob. "I suggest we head back to the last arrow and look from there on foot."

He swung the chopper but instead of following the river around the huge bend it had made, set a course directly for Jack's last pointer.

They had almost reached the spot when Mark let out a curse.

"How the Hell did that get there" he gasped, pointing down on the port side.

The object of his astonishment was a huge tree. It dwarfed the conifers, which packed the landscape as far as the eye could see. But it was its shape rather than its size that made it stand out. It had not grown upward like its neighbours, but had spread its limbs into a huge crown.

"So what's the problem? It's just another tree," replied Bob.

Even from the height they were flying Mark could see that it had broad leaves like a deciduous tree. Another feature that stood out was that the conifers around its periphery were all dead or dying. It was as if the tree were robbing the soil of its nourishment.

Or poisoning it perhaps, he thought. Aloud he said: "We'll have to get rid of that one, it looks as if it could take over the environment."

They flew around it for a minute or two before heading on to the river bank and landing by Big Jack's last arrow.

Mark examined a handful of ash from the remains of his camp fire, "he certainly isn't far ahead of us. Day or two at most."

Bob picked up the radio handset and pressed the call button.

"Ranger three calling base. Ranger three calling base. Over."

"Base here Ranger three, what's the news."

Bob, in a few words, reported that they were leaving the chopper to follow the trail on foot.

"Just a minute," he added, "Mark wants to talk to you."

Pressing the call button, Mark said: "The damnedest thing, Ranger Base, as we came back we flew over a huge exotic. The tree looks more like a refugee from the jungle than anything that belongs in conifer country. Far from looking out of place it appears to be elbowing a space for itself among the conifers. It could become a serious threat to the environment. We'll check it out before we leave and enter a report when we get back. Over."

"OK. But keep in touch and let us know the moment you find Jack. Ranger base out."

The two men set off along the bank. There was not exactly a trail, but between the river and the forest was a zone that flooded when the snow melted, and it provided a natural grassy path.

They had not gone more than a mile when they came across a stone cairn. The grass was growing up between the boulders and it had obviously been there for quite a long time.

"Bet that was left by Oslo to mark the place where he turned inland," said Bob.

"You're right. If you look at the scrub you can see that there is an animal trail leading down to the river. He must have gone to investigate."

"Jack would never have missed that cairn so the betting is that he went that way too. Shall we follow?"

Without bothering to reply Mark set off with Bob close behind.

The trail led through the open space beneath the lower branches of the forest as it wound between the fallen trees. Some of the trunks had been there for decades, and were now being broken down by fungi whose fruiting bodies adorned their remains, and by a hoard of insects whose larvae were feeding on the rotting wood. Other creatures that ate the grubs had dug into the soft pulp, breaking it down further and even excavating lairs for themselves in the hollow interior.

In the open spaces left by the falling trees secondary growth had produced a more impenetrable barrier and it was here that they came across their first traces of Big Jack's passage. The occasional small shrub had been hacked back with a hunting knife, and the forest had not yet had time to reclaim the space he had created.

Bob consulted the compass he carried at his waist and observed that they were headed in the direction of the strange tree.

They plodded on for another few miles until all at once they entered the zone of dead trees. Then, suddenly, a cavernous space opened before them and they found themselves in the shade of the huge exotic.

Mark who had studied forestry before joining the Rangers said he had never seen anything like it in his life, and reached up to pluck a leaf from a low branch. Its strangeness was amplified when the leaf refused to break off. It was as if the stem were made of nylon.

His knife made short work of recovering a sample, but as he brought it down to examine it he saw that the wound he had created was oozing a liquid that looked more like blood than sap.

Further investigation was interrupted by a shout from Bob that he had found Jack.

The big man was lying, apparently asleep, under the tree with his head on a grassy mound. As Mark rushed up Bob was trying to shake him awake.

"I think he's dead," said Bob. "We'd better get him back to base. The nearest open space where we could land the chopper was on that hillock about half a mile back. Think we can carry him?"

The two men bent to pick him up but instead of two hundred pounds of husky hunter, the body turned out to be an empty shell and as it came up in their startled hands they saw a forest of white roots that had penetrated deep into the carcass. As they watched the roots began to withdraw into the ground and within seconds there was nothing to show that they had ever been there.

The men unceremoniously, dropped the empty shell and stared around in horror. Mark kicked at the hump against which Jack had been lying and out of the long grass popped the rib cage of an elk.

"This damn tree must be carnivorous," he gasped. "Quick run! Before the bloody thing catches us!"

Bob took one unsteady step.
"God! My legs won't work," he cried, his voice edged with panic. "I feel doped."

Struggling to take another step he fell to his knees and began to crawl, but before he had gone more than a couple of yards he collapsed prone on the soft grass.

Mark too seemed to have gone to sleep.

* * *

"Hark my children, it is time for you to stand on your own feet."

With that a number of large pods fell from the tree. They broke open to reveal a soft furry lining within which lay a six legged creature with big eyes. Much as one of our earthly calves struggles to its feet after birth, they eased themselves free of their shells. As they gained their feet it became clear that they were really quadrupeds with the front two limbs modified for manipulation.

Once erect, the creatures, which looked for all the world like young centaurs, scurried off, disappearing rapidly into the undergrowth.

1995 © Peter Billingham