New Eve of the Scorch-Excerpt from Book 3
The clearing, floored with red Georgia clay, was about thirty feet wide and bordered by an improbable wall of blue-green foliage fronting onto a clear stream. A killing field with a concealing tree line, thought Tremont. In the precise middle of the space, a smooth, six-foot brown staff the size of a woman’s wrist emerged directly from the smooth clay surface. Along one whole side, from the ground to the apex of the staff, extended a squarish pale flag, flapping as the staff moved. The staff rose from ground level, carrying the flag with it until it crashed, unceremoniously, on the other side, hesitating briefly before returning to its original position. The thumping of the staff reminded Tremont of some barbaric jungle drum.
“Well, Graham, it looks like a flag of truce, whether the plants understand that or not.”
“Chiu’s signal has moved, as well. Very close to this location.”
“No, sir. The signal’s not a hundred yards off.”
“Then the tracker’s probably useless to us. The Scorch may be trying to use the tracker to manipulate us.”
“Could be. Making us parlay here as they move around to get our communication lines. What do you think, Jesse?”
“Let me ask you something, Jake. What’s your take on our enemy up to this point? Acting rationally or not?”
“Oh, the Scorch is smart enough.”
“Okay, if it’s smart, then this is either a trick or a request for an authentic parley. Right?”
“I agree, Jesse. How do we figure it out?” said Black.
“They’re prepared to ignore our violating their first attempt at parley. I suggest that we should treat this as a real request. If it’s a trick, we have learned something about our enemy. If it’s real, then they have learned something about us outlanders.”
“All right. Lieutenant Black,” said Tremont, “if I don’t come back, pull back units until you can make visual contact with a rear echelon and each other, then contact corps HQ for instructions. Don’t listen to the good doctor here. He’s here as your advisor, not your commander. Got it?”
“I love you, too, Jake. And I’m going with you,” said Jesse, handing his sidearm to a sergeant.
“See, Lieutenant? That’s why you shouldn’t listen to him,” responded Tremont.
Johnstone and Tremont acquired a bit of mostly clean white T-shirt from a Private Presley and set off. As they entered the small clearing, the white flag quickly furled, absorbed into the staff, and the staff itself melted back into the red earth. For a few seconds, the two men stood alone, exposed, facing the opaque threat of the tree line. Some trick of the light made Tremont see the small wild space as if it were for the moment an empty stage, awaiting only the conductor’s downbeat for it to spring into life.
“Something’s happening, Jake, over there—that bunch of vines,” muttered Jesse under his breath.
“Yep, I see it. If it was a trick, they got us out and in the open without our weapons.”
As Tremont spoke, the vines parted from the middle, like a curtain.
They waited. Within the silence, as if it were an overture, the fecund scent of the Scorch, smelling of growth, decay, extravagant blossoms, and luscious fruits, wafted to him, pricking Tremont’s skin into gooseflesh despite the heat. This was no gentle prelude: a Beethoven’s Fifth rather than a Pastoral.
In nominal command of the mission, Colonel Tremont was here as much to be Jesse’s bodyguard as he was to command the mission. Protecting Jesse Johnstone, the First of the Old Ones, from the danger had become a priority since the two assassination attempts. However, the mission, once the platoon entered the Scorch, was really run by the Old Man. Tremont could only try to reduce the danger and personal risk that Jesse seemed to assume as normal. If any harm came to Jesse, Gage Thomas, the Commander of Colonial Logistics and de facto theater commander of frontier defenses, would likely have Jake’s balls on a keychain. How was he supposed to protect Jesse from harm when neither he nor his men really knew what danger looked like? Only the Old Man knew.
At the beginning of the mission, the platoon had followed Jesse, single file, as he slipped through the wilderness of changed and unchanged plants, avoided perils even as he showed them the danger. During those first few days, the Old Man had warned the soldiers to make no aggressive advances, use no edged weapon on living things, follow in his actual footsteps, and use no downed wood. Lieutenant Black had wanted to use fire to clear a path. Jesse forbade it. So far, Tremont was pretty sure that no American trooper had violated that prohibition. Yet the Scorch had turned against them—and was winning the battle.
Jesse nudged him. He looked up. The vines rustled, parted, and out walked Eve.
Smoothly tanned skin—and there was a lot of tanned skin to admire—slight, with dark, straight hair and startlingly blue eyes, the girl was at once familiar and alien. Around her right areola, she wore a typical outlander woman’s mark. Around her navel, however, was another tattoo, a corded circle, imperfect as if by intention and a vivid green. It took some effort to look back to the girl’s face. In contrast to her body, the face was stern, unblinking, hard, majestic, and, in some undefinable way, other.
The stage became silent. Even the stream across which she stepped lightly had quieted.
“Why you are invading the People?” came the stark voice, seeming to come from every direction at once. Tremont’s knees buckled in his immediate desire to kneel. He was not alone.
Beside him, he heard Jesse give a short groan and watched in fascinated horror as Old Man staggered forward and collapsed to his knees. He bowed his head, exposing his neck, and raised his hands, palms downward—the outlander posture for requesting forgiveness.
He watched the fierce face melt.
Advancing forward, she knelt before Jesse, dwarfed by the Old Man. Looking toward him, the girl, for she in those few steps had discarded her mantel of imperium, tenderly turned Jesse’s right hand upward, placing her left hand upon it before moving her right hand under Jesse’s left.
Something was happening here, something that had nothing to do with their mission but much to do with his friend’s reason for being here, Tremont thought.