Chapter 15:

The Shortcut

Badass (8-4D-455)

Location: Wild woods
Health: 100%
Energy reserves: -3%

Because Badass had left Sprucetop with the pretext of looking for materials for his shack, he made his way to where the villagers had directed him. It was a scrap heap, probably an ancient settlement, with plenty of things for building. Most of Sprucetop’s walls and roofs came from there. I could use a map and a compass, thought Badass, cutting his way through the thicket, using the top of Sprucetop’s giant spruce, reaching towards the clouds and appearing behind the canopy from time to time, to orient himself.

The sun had started to sink when he reached the rubble. The wide plain was covered in chunks of concrete mixed with the most incredible trash. Gigantic buildings must have once towered here, destroyed by time, ice and unknown cataclysm.

The field of concrete stretched for kilometers in front of Badass, bordered on all sides by the green jungle. Plants grew sparsely on the stone remains - primarily moss - so the building had probably collapsed relatively recently. It must have been mostly standing when the ice retreated and the forest sprung up, or it would have been swallowed by the jungle. Wondering who could have erected those buildings and what they could have done there, Badass started looking for the rusty sheets of metal that Tooler had told him about. Tooler explained it was actually some kind of fiber plastic, once used by the builders to cover the facade. Nature and time had ground the sheets into ugly shapes, but they were incredibly light and flexible, yet amazingly durable. He could spot some sheets here and there, but getting them was the real challenge. Many were stuck under boulders or in places where Badass just couldn’t reach them. He spent hours climbing on the concrete rocks, swearing and inventing new curses, before he managed to get three sheets for a basic shelter. Half of the sun had disappeared behind the wall of jungle, painting the surrounding landscape a bloody red. Total darkness wasn’t far away and it was about time for Badass to turn back towards Sprucetop, unless he wanted to spend the night wandering in the woods or camping out. He rolled up the three metal sheets, tied them with pieces of wire he found on the spot, heaved the rolls onto his shoulder and set off towards the homely giant spruce towering over the forest.

As strange as it was, the forest was much lighter than the field of concrete, although the rays of the sun almost didn’t reach it. The light came from many plants that started glowing after dark. When Badass’s load of rolls accidentally scratched a tree, tearing off the bark, he discovered the source of the luminosity. Thousands of tiny insects flew out, scattering like a cloud of sparks. It was so beautiful that Badass stopped to admire their flight. He had never seen such a gorgeous thing. The insects gathered around Badass, fluttering happily, and he discovered that despite their beautiful appearance, they were quite bloodthirsty. They attacked his hands, face, neck and exposed legs with a shrill buzz, sticking their snouts deep under his skin. Surprised, he quickly dispatched the first ones, but as more and more hordes of glowing insects kept pressing on, his surprise quickly turned into disgust. When he saw long glowing streams of insects flow out from the trunks of other nearby trees, heading toward him, he set off running through the woods without picking a direction.

Losing the insects wasn’t hard. He only had to wade through some thicker undergrowth a little and the clouds of insects got caught in the bushes, stayed there buzzing and waiting for a new victim. But along with the insects, he lost the light as well. Badass was now stumbling through the dark forest almost by hand alone, struggling not to lose his fiber rolls that kept getting caught in the branches. Sweaty, torn up by sharp thorns and itching from bug bites, he leaned on a small mound and tried to decide what to do.

He wasn’t completely lost, as the sun, sunk below the forest long ago from where he was standing, still shone on the tops of the giant spruces and the blood red tip of the giant tree, several hundred meters high, shone like a beacon over the sea of darkness. But the only sources of light in the undergrowth were a few swarms of insects drifting around and the trees where they lived, with their glowing bark. The guiding beacon of the giant spruce wasn’t enough to go by and Badass had to decide whether to stay the night or try to feel his way onward. Staying in the woods seemed risky. Before the accident in space, Badass’s whole life had passed in the starship, in a controlled environment. He had never before experienced such strange and dangerous surroundings. During the day, he could manage his fears but now, in almost pitch black darkness, he felt he could barely suppress his panic. As long as he had a plan and he could work towards it, he was able to control his fears, but he wasn’t sure he could stay sane while sitting around waiting for the morning. Maybe that’s how Keio got so strange, sitting in the woods at night, frightened by every rustle of movement. In that case it was no wonder that the girl stayed at the first safe place she found and refused to leave. I should have at least stayed the night too, thought Badass. I could have returned to the village in the morning, at dawn, and told everyone I got lost and waited in the woods all night. I doubt they would have suspected anything. I’ll have to say the same thing now when I get back, but actually sit around in the forest too. He listened to an unknown creature’s shrill cry from far away, over the buzzing of insects. The scream went on for a long time. It wasn’t clear whether the beast was suffering, being eaten, or cried victoriously after devouring someone.

The sun wouldn’t gild the spruce tops for long, soon it would set completely, so he had no time to lose: he had to make a decision. Find some place for the night, safer than this brush full of bloodthirsty bugs and who knows what else, or get moving. Badass considered it quickly and decided to keep going. It seemed a better option than sticking around and going weird in the head like Keio. Advancing in the dark woods promised to be challenging, but he would sneak from one glowing swarm of insects to the next, from one glowing tree to the next, trying to keep as far away as possible, at the edges of the light. He hoped to stay sane and reduce the risk of stumbling in the dark, poking his eye out with a branch or falling into some hole.

Moving proved to be just as complicated as Badass had feared. Without seeing where to step, he crashed through the woods and could surely be heard far-far away, but it couldn’t be helped. The forest floor was thick with branches and bushes. Every last thing he stepped on or brushed would either crack, crunch, rustle or swish. Badass soon became convinced that the plants did it on purpose. They don’t like me being here, he told himself, gritting his teeth. They’re trying to attract all the predators around this neck of the woods. If anyone tries to tell me that trees and bushes can’t make a sound, I'll send them into the forest at night, and not just any forest, but this treacherous thicket. Fortunately, the closest predators - and most bloodthirsty as far as Badass was concerned - those damn glowing insects, didn’t seem to react to sounds. As long as he kept to the edges of the dim light, they left him alone. A couple of times he failed to react fast enough when the swarm changed direction and swept towards him unexpectedly, and had to flee into the bushes again. But over time he came to know the swarm’s movement and predicted it accurately enough to get out of their way.

Finally the sun sunk somewhere behind the ice fields and the last light in the sky was extinguished, along with the guiding beacon. But Badass was already so close to the spruce that he didn’t need it any more. The night sky was clear, full of stars, and Badass set his course after the completely black slice with no stars whatsoever. That had to be the giant spruce, hiding the stars from him, and it was pretty close. The glowing acorns of now-familiar oaks started flashing behind the trees. Badass was almost home. But something happened then that once again pushed him out of his comfort zone.

The swarm of insects floating next to him as he crashed through the woods suddenly disappeared. One moment they were buzzing in front of him, flying between two neighbouring trees, but then wouldn’t emerge from the other side. Badass stopped in total darkness. At first he thought the insects had crawled under the bark, but then he would have seen the tree’s glow. Yet the forest remained black as space. Suddenly the swarm appeared again, circling elegantly, but before Badass could get moving, they were gone - in exactly the same spot, just as quickly and in total darkness. Only the buzzing remained. So the insects definitely hadn’t withdrawn under the bark, but were still flying around. Where? Had they turned off their glow? He noticed a faint play of light shimmering on the trunks and leaves, in a V-shape, as if through a door or a cave mouth. But it couldn’t have been either, for there wasn’t anything to attach the door or cave mouth to. Before the light faded, Badass could clearly see there were only trees, just like everywhere else, maybe slightly sparser. He started to feel his way closer. He knew he should stay away, but curiosity got the better of fear and logic. Badass was certain that even if the insects discovered and attacked him, he would have time to escape, just like several times before. As he reached the two trees where the light was shining and looked between them, his mouth fell open. Impossible! Now I’ve really lost it, he thought.

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