It's a hell of a lot easier riding a tree branch five miles than it is slogging through mud and ducking under thorn vines. Not that it's necessarily easy, depending on what part of the branch you get. I get a lumpy part and my butt hurts. Ramon is also sitting on a lumpy part but he makes it look cool. He makes everything look cool. Phooey. Aristede is standing and holding onto a vertical branch. Klunk has a hold of another branch and it being dragged through the air. Sword Lesbian has all eight arms wrapped tightly around the branch. And Tikreelkara is standing upright next to me, the claws of their feet digging into the bark. Behind us, a forest follows, passing lightly and silently between the trunks of trees that might be sleeping Tikolumians, might be rooted plant matter. It is difficult to tell and leaves me ill at ease. I am grateful that this city, at the very least, has decided we are trustworthy.
"So you're taking us to see a city ruined by the indolence of technology," I say. "Is that what the trouble is? You think your people are getting Soft?"
"Quite the opposite," says Tikreelkara. "But you will see when we get there. I don't exactly enjoy discussing the matter. I assume you wish to know more about the nature of my species, though."
"I get the gist of it. But how many pollinators are there? What's the ratio?"
"Lower than before. Ah, but that's also a heavy topic. I think I would prefer not to speak until we reach our destination."
"Permit me one more question, though." I jerk my thumb back at the gaggle of trees and bushes -- excuse me, Tikolumians -- following behind us. "Why is the whole of Tikomuriten following us?"
"That, unfortunately, is related to the issue at hand."
We ride in silence for the next good while, passing infrequent stands of charred and blackened trees, their charcoal crumbling in the rain. Until at last we see light ahead of us, and we come to the top of a precipice, over which we can look out upon a vast open valley. Where before the sky had been grey between the boughs of the forest, sunlight is streaming between the widening gaps in the clouds, casting spotlights upon a scene of devastation.
As far as we can see, the landscape is covered in charred and blackened trees. Compared to the riot of colors I'd been getting used to, this is a massive grey scar. It's mitigrated somewhat by the saplings and shrubs growing between the fallen trunks, but the predominant color is grey and brown. In the distance, a rain cloud casts more grey over the landscape. In the distance of another direction, a different rain cloud casts more greyness over the lanscape. The other edge of this mess might be on the far side of the mountains, but those mountains themselves are lost in the blue haze you get when you try to look across the world from a high place.
The majority of the trees are down. The charred remnants stand taller than anything we've seen so far. From this distance, the stumps appear to be at least 60 feet in diameter. The fallen branches are longer than any branch I've ever seen.
"I never thought I'd be sad to see clear skies," says Sword Lesbian. "What a mess."
In the far distance, I see a Tikolumian striding among the mess. It's not as tall as these trees might have been, but it is even wider around than the massive stumps within the ruins.
"The figure in the distance," says Tikreelkara, "Prefers to keep this place sacred. If you, a fleshling human, were to be seen among the bodies here, the results could very well be fatal. That is why the rest of Tikomuriten followed. Vouching for you is easier if the rest of my people are backing me up."
"We saw this while hitting the upper atmosphere," I say. "I thought it was a mining operation of some kind. Not necessarily for Spelunkium...but something. But I don't see anything that looks like digging. What is this place?"
"This was Yumila," says Tikrellkara. "The grandest city on the continent. The greatest number of our species lived and loved here, in the valley of the river Yuma."
"Did the Space Slug crew do this?" says Aristede.
"I am not sure who you are referring to," says Tikreelkara.
"Did the Student Loan Company do this?" says Ramon. "But they would have harvested the wood to sell."
"I am not sure who this Student Loan Company is," says Tikreelkara. "The war among my species is attributable in part to the influence of outsiders, but the outsiders didn't actually know what they were doing. Sort of." Tikreelkara points to a shape floating just beyond the clouds. "Certainly they know what that thing is. None of us do. But as for the more obvious influence of outsiders, well...I am sure we can find a few indicitave items in the ruins. Let us go and see."
The tree moves forward, and steps over the precipice. I look down and expect to see the world rushing up at me. Instead, the tree has bent its legs backwards, and its roots are digging into the rock as the tree carries down the cliff face. I look up through the branches of the tree. The rest of Tikomuriten is following our lead.
We reach the bottom, and in short order we are standing at the edge of the vast field of bodies.
"Come," says Tikreelkara, "Let us find what we are looking for." They jump down off the branch.
Oh, sure, like it's that easy.
Ramon jumps off the branch and sinks a foot into the mud. The tree bends its mighty limb down so that the rest of us can descend more gracefully, then plucks Ramon out of the mud with a squelch.
Tikreelkara is busy inspecting the ground at the base of the larger fallen branches. They stoop, and pick up a large white plastic device with buttons in primary colors. It's a device that seems like it would fit better in the hands of one of these Tikolumians than in the hands of any shorty like me or Tikreelkara.
"This thing," says Tikreelkara. "A pheremone enhancer."
"Oh, I've seen those," says Ramon. "They were all the rage among the Trents on Altair-7-3."
"Likewise here," says Tikreelkara. "Everyone who got one of these things had the ability to produce greater offspring more quickly than the have-nots. They became quite coveted. That was where the war began. I just can't figure why the outsiders introduced them."
"Robin," says Klunk, "you said something earlier about how there's no Spelunkium on this planet."
"But I've been smelling it the whole time we've been here."
"Metal has no smell."
"Its not a metal! One moment." Klunk lets go of a branch and shoots up into the sky.
She hangs high above us for a few seconds, then returns back to the ground as quickly as she had departed. "That's what I thought," she says. "The atmosphere is thick with Spelunkium. Someone must have seeded this planet for Spelunkium production." She picks up one of the pheremone-enhancers. "And here's your proof. My Pappy told me that Spelunkium is produced from plants that have had their pheremones enhanced. And what better way to get Spelunkum into an atmosphere than to get ambulatory trees to pass the pheremone-enhancers among themselves?" She points at the object floating high above us. "THAT is the mining station."
"Surely it should still be working," says Aristede. "If you can smell the Spelunkium, isn't there enough to mine?"
"I imgine there is far less since the wars ended," says Tikreelkara. "The presence in the sky -- if it feeds off Spelunki-whatsis then it is probably starving now. There is no more if its food source to be had from this planet. My apologies. I should have been more clear when I said that Tikomuriten was the last pure city. We're the last city, period." They pick up a piece of twisted pipe. "Much have I heard of wars on other planets, how they tend to field massive armies, how they have massive weapons and wars that burn entire continents and break whole planets into pieces. And yet, life in the galaxy goes on somehow. One might attribute that to the laws and customs of war that allow for refugees to escape the zones of conflict. Here, for some reason, the majority of our population fought for the pheremone-enhancers, using weapons they failed to keep in check, from sources that demanded they use the pheremone-enhancers if they wanted more weapons. The object in the sky occasionally produced people like you. They demanded that our people march long and fight hard. Not sure why."
"That doesn't make much sense," says Aristede. "Why would a Spelunkium mining operation demand something that would put an end to its source of Spelunkium?"
"I suppose we can find out," I say, "and hopefully the mining station itself will give us some answers. Ramon, if you would be so kind as to summon our ride?"
Ramon takes out his key fob and presses the orange button. "Tikreelkara," he says, "Do you want to come with us?"
"it would be better than looking at this place for too long."
The Barracuda lands in front of Ramon. Mud covers the paint job halfway up the doors.
"Maybe they have a car wash up on that mining station," says Ramon. "Well, let's get going."