The Tonic of Wilderness – part one

Copyright © 2019 Patrick Walts

All Rights Reserved

Adelbern the Fifteenth was, quite literally, born to be an adventurer. His line of continuants had been conditioned for the exploration of unknown and unforgiving terrain since the time of the Firsts, when Kryuss himself had taken note of the original’s physical prowess and athletic abilities back on Earth. It was decided that, one day, his continuant would play a crucial rule in taming the Promised Land.

Or so the story went, anyway.

Kryuss had even given him books from his own personal collection, to inspire and shape him. Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, King Solomon’s Mines… He’d devoured all of those and more, as had every Adelbern since.

Fifteen didn’t break this tradition; he did indeed cherish those books, and cycled through all of them at least once a year. Their pages had long since loosened from their spines, and were yellow and brittle. No one but he was permitted to touch them, even though books were scarce and his collection was highly coveted by nearly everyone on board the Effugium.

All literature, from the Old Testament all the way to Fifty Shades of Grey, was of course digitally available for the council’s perusal, but they were of a mind that such texts would prove harmful by way of triggering pointless nostalgia for a world that no longer existed.

They encouraged the people to write new books, about their voyage to the promised land, but most were either terribly boring or downright awful, which made Adelbern’s collection all the more precious.

His favorites of the new books were the science fiction stories that speculated upon what the Promised Land might actually be like. The council, of course, as part of their tireless crusade against imagination and enjoyment, had declared them heresy and ordered them deleted.

He wondered, as he hacked a path through the thick webs of translucent purple vines that almost seemed to glue the jungle together, what would become of his books if he didn’t make it back? He was more terrified of someone mishandling them than he’d been of the man-sized beast of an insect he’d slain several days earlier when it had leapt from the treetops and swooped down on him and his team.

On day twelve of their expedition to locate the temple of the Creators, he, the would-be “great explorer,” had gotten them lost.

The severed vines, they discovered one morning upon waking, reconnected themselves at night, which was in itself an extraordinary feat and one worthy of further discussion at a later time, but for now, they had no path to follow back to the lander.

Adelbern didn’t mind too much, though. He couldn’t get over how big the world seemed. He’d never before stood under a sky, never seen plants or trees besides the short, uniform rows of them in the gardens on the Effugium. He’d never seen beyond the grimy-walled interior of a run-down spaceship that had never been intended for a journey as lengthy as the one it embarked upon centuries prior to his birth.

Breathing fresh air, standing with his feet pressed into soft, moist ground, even feeling insects buzzing against his face–it was wondrous. His books had come to life.

“What if this is all there is?” Asked Faramund the nineteeth between heavy breaths, his clothes soaked with sweat. “What if we never find anything but more vines and giant…things?”

We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature,” said Adelbern. “Henry David Thoreau.”

Faramund rolled his eyes. “You and your books. When’re you gonna let me read one?”

“You’re living one now, Far,” said Aldebern. And this one’s a true story. I’d suggest you learn to appreciate the significance of that.”

“Yeah,” said Pordus the Sixth. “Quit being such a baby.”

Maybe I need to be nursed,” said Faramund.

Pordus felt Far’s eyes on her breasts and experienced a twinge of revulsion. “Keep talking,” she said, “if your nose isn’t important to you.”

“What’re you gonna–”

Her fist connected with his face faster than his reflexes were able to react. He stumbled backwards and fell into a puddle of the sparkling violet dew that dripped from the trumpet-shaped white flowers of the vines they were cutting through. His nose gushed blood, and he wiped it on his sleeve.

“Alright, that’s enough playing around,” said Adelbern. “We need to keep moving.”

Faramund stood and brushed himself off as the rest of the team moved forward. His muscles became weak and sore, and his skin tingled. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, though. He just wanted to go to sleep..

Something reached out and grabbed him and he vanished.

The rest of them trekked onward, snickering at the exchange they’d just witnessed.

“Hey Far, you alright back there?” called Adelbern a few mins later.

No reply. Only the sounds of the jungle answered back.

“Far!”

Still nothing.

“He was just there,” said Pordus, her white-knuckled grip on her crossbow tightening.

“Look!” Geirr was pointing upward, and all of their eyes followed his finger to something hanging high up in the trees.

It was Faramund, they all realized after a moment. He was either dead or unconscious, and coated with thick yellow goop.

A long, winding proboscis emerged from the misty shadows and poked and prodded at him for a moment, as if it were sniffing him, before plunging itself into his chest. The creature it belonged to made a horrifying slurping sound when it began to feed.

Adelbern raised his crossbow and fired an arrow at the branch above Faramund’s cocoon.

The creature shrieked, withdrew itself and fled, and Far’s nearly liquified corpse hit the ground, splattering them all with its partially digested innards.

All that was left of Adelbern’s lifelong friend were sludge-covered smoking bones. He couldn’t stop to mourn, though. That would only result in more lives lost under his command, and one was too many as it was.

“Look at him,” he said, unnecessarily, as they were all doing so anyway. “That’s what happens when you screw around and don’t pay attention to your surroundings. Remember this. Commit it to memory.”

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” said Nestor, her face white.

They turned and left him there, the howls of the creature that had killed him fading into distance as it leapt from treetop to treetop with an arrow presumably lodged somewhere in its body.

Adelbern continued to cut through the jungle, covered by Geirr and Pordus , with Nestor holding up the rear.

No one said anything for the longest time, and it was Pordus who finally broke the silence.

“I didn’t meant to cause–I mean, he was such a jerk, but, well, you know…”

“Shut up,” said Adelbern. “We don’t have time to wallow in our feelings right now.”

He didn’t enjoy having to be so curt with her, but dwelling on the death of his friend and her occasional lover was not a luxury they could afford.

She said nothing, and neither did anyone else until nightfall. They’d found a big enough clearing to set up camp in, and Nestor volunteered to stand guard while the others slept.

“Not like I’d be able to sleep anyway, with that thing out there.”

“We must assume there are bigger and meaner creatures than that one,” said Adelbern. And everything here is hungry. All the time.

*

The ground around their camp was soggy with the same stuff Far had fallen into a puddle of. Made sense, Adelbern realized, as those white flowers were all over the place.

Finding sleep impossible, he decided to get up and replace Nestor.

He peeked through the flap of the tent he shared with Geirr. Nestor was wide awake at her post, sitting on a fallen tree limb and clutching her weapon.

He grabbed his own and slipped out to join her.

“Hey.”

She jumped a little then relaxed. “Hey.”

They stared into the wild, black darkness together.

“Something, isn’t it?” He said. “Can you believe we’re the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world? I’ve dreamed of this day for so long.”

“How’s the reality match up to the dream?”

He chuckled. “It doesn’t. It’s nothing like I expected.”

She held up the crossbow. “Too bad we don’t have guns. Could sure use ’em out here.”

“Indeed we could,” said Adelbern. “I was disappointed that the arsenal we brought from Earth has been rendered entirely useless by the passage of time. I’ve read so much about them that I–”

He paused, remembering that people didn’t like it when he talked about his books.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You must have some of those stories memorized, by now. Maybe you could tell me one?”

He pondered this for a moment. The council wouldn’t approve. But the council’s not here.

Tell you what,” he said. “We make it outta here, I’ll loan you my copy of Around the World in 80 Days. I think you’ll like it.”

“Are you serious?”

“I promise,” he said. “Just don’t tell anyone.” Not that he believed they’d ever find their way back to the lander and subsequently the ship.

“I wouldn’t,” she said. “You can always trust me.” She reached up to stroke his cheek.

Using the testing kit they’d brought with them, they’d found that the most plentiful fruit in the jungle, which also happened to be the ugliest and the smelliest, was also the most edible. Indeed, it was actually highly nutritious, full of fiber and antioxidants. It was also a good alternate source of hydration that enabled them to conserve their daily supply of boiled, drinkable rainwater. The boiling itself was an added layer of protection on top of the antibiotics they’d all been preventively pumped full of, and probably redundant, but Adelbern liked to be thorough.

He took a bite out of one of the brown, lumpy oval-shaped things, chewed, and nodded. “Y’know, I think these are beginning to grow on me.”

They still had plenty of food packs left, but he was trying to get his people to learn self-sufficiency and the ability to live off the land. These were important skills for explorers to have, he knew. And so they were eating the fruit, or eating nothing. Tomorrow, they’d try their hand at hunting one of the small, spiky, furry things that ran beneath the decaying leaves on the jungle floor.

Truth be told, he was somewhat wary about the prospect of killing a living being, but survival sometimes demanded sacrifice. He would kill it himself, to show them how. It wouldn’t be difficult. What worried him most was the part of him that was excited about it.

The fog that poured out of the open mouths of the vine flowers at night had a soothing effect, creating a sense of euphoria that varied in intensity with changes in weather conditions.

Though Adelbern struggled against its effects, which he felt were far too pleasant a distraction to be experiencing while in survival mode, tonight he couldn’t help but fall under its spell.

It silenced things in his mind that were usually loud, and permitted the smaller, fainter voices to be heard for the first time. It gave him a sense of clarity.

“Look,” he said, pointing at a cloud of insects buzzing around one of the flowers, the underside of his finger illuminated by the dim glow of the iridescent mushrooms that dotted the jungle floor.

“Watch how they spin out of control and fall to the ground. It’s a trap.”

“So the plants eat the bugs?” Asked Nestor.

Adelbern shook his head. “I don’t think so. But it’s all starting to make sense now. Just wait.”

Minutes later, several palm-sized mammalian-looking creatures scurried into view, looking to and fro for, Adelbern supposed, signs of potential predators. The two humans remained still, moving only their eyes as they watched.

They darted from flower to flower, snatching up and eating the incapacitated insects and leaving droppings behind. When they’d presumably had their fill, they disappeared back into the night.

“Everything here serves a purpose to something else,” said Adelbern. “The bugs are attracted to the flowers, which render them unconscious or dead, at which time the animals we just saw come to collect them. As payment for their dinner, they leave behind fertilizer that allows the plants to grow and thrive.”

“That’s what Far is now,” said Nestor. “Fertilizer.”

Adelbern nodded. “On Earth, we were at the top of the food chain. Here, we’re just meat. We can’t forget that.”

They never woke anyone for relief; they sat up the rest of the night and began the next day’s journey on no sleep.

*

Two days of aimless wandering later, they were a changed group. They’d eaten of meat for the first time in their time in their lives, officially becoming a link in the food chain.

Adelbern found the sensation of his teeth ripping roasted flesh to be a little too agreeable for his comfort. It was simply the most glorious food he’d ever tasted, and when his belly was full, his body relaxed by the effects of the purple fog, he was convinced that his aching muscles themselves were drawing strength and healing from the meat. He felt savage and primal, and a quote from Rudyard Kipling came to mind. He shared it with the group as they feasted.

“Now this is the Law of the Jungle — as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

Pordus and Adelbern saw the flames dancing in each other’s eyes when they locked gazes across the fire, and neither of them got much sleep that night.

*

After three more days, the trees began to thin out and the vines became less dense, and they finally reached the edge of the jungle.

Except I’m no William Beebe, thought Adelbern, who was finding it increasingly difficult to shove aside his guilt at having lost a man. A friend. The council was mistaken to send me on this mission.

The mountains, when seen from outside of the jungle in all their glory, were even more majestic and awe-inspiring than he’d ever expected mountains could be. They made him feel small. Beyond them, faintly visible in spots, was a large body of water. One of the seas he’d seen from the lander on their way to the surface.

Standing between them and the mountains was a swamp, or so Adelbern had surmised. It looked like one, anyway. There was a lot of thick, purple grass, and the occasional crooked tree jutting out of murky, ankle-deep water. This place would have its own predators, its own mysterious set of rules and customs that they were about to violate by their very presence there.

“If we can ascend to a high enough point, maybe we can spot the lander,” he said.

No one seemed particularly enthusiastic about his plan, but nevertheless, they were grateful to have emerged from the jungle that lay behind them with both lives and limbs intact, and didn’t offer much in the way of protest.

“Hey,” he said, “chins up. We’re doing just fine out here. We’re survivors. We’re adventurers. Let’s act like it.”

Things beneath the water bumped their ankles as they began to slosh through the swamp.

A flat, leaflike creature they’d all assumed was part of one of the multiple varieties of underwater plant life they’d already brushed past rose and skittered out of the way, its roots serving as spindly little legs.

Nestor laughed. “It’s so cute!” She said.

Adelbern, Gierr and Nestor all smiled, but Pordus glowered at her. “It’s probably deadly, like everything else here. There’s nothing cute and cuddly about this planet.”

“It’s the one the Creators made for us,” said Adelbern. “There are reasons for the hardships we’ve faced, and one day we’ll understand them. Or perhaps we won’t. Either way, don’t ever talk like that outside of this group. The council has eyes and ears everywhere, except here.”

“You say this as if we’re actually going to make it back to the ship,” she said.

“We will,” said Adelbern. So don’t get too comfortable speaking so freely. For right now, though, we’re having too much fun to think about that.”

“Ha! Fun! Far is dead. We are dead. It’s just a matter of time before some–there, something just nibbled at my leg. Its teeth are probably full of poison.”

“By Kryuss, would you please shut up already,” said Gierr. “You’re not helping things.”

Pordus was about to respond when Adelbern turned and shot her a stern look. She sighed and kept walking.

To be continued…

Here’s what’s happening:

The Effugium has arrived at the planet “discovered” by Galen the Sixth in With New Eyes.

The council, which is aware that Kryuss was not a prophet and that there are no “Creators,” nevertheless maintains this illusion for the sake of keeping their people docile and obedient.

The team on the surface believes they are searching for the “temple” of the Creators, as prophesied by Kryuss, but in reality they’ve been sent as guinea pigs to test the livability of the world that will one day come to be called Galenia.

These are awkward, sheltered people with very old, broken equipment.

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