Life in the Dead Forest
M. L. McCortney
Journal Entry 1
Location: Hort, the Igds, Free Galactic Zone
The 983rd Year of the Second Era, Galactic Standard Time
The first stop on my journey through the seven planets of the Igds was a world called Hort. From space, it looked grey and dreary. From the ground, it was similar. However, what initially appeared to be dead forests and wasteland swamps were actually vast wildernesses teeming with unusual life. This was a paradise for a wildlife researcher second only to tropical worlds, so I was excited to find a place to land my ship within a small Igdan commune.
Now, it is important to remember that I knew very little Igdano, the primary language of the Igdans. However, at the time I believed I could competently ask for directions or talk about wildlife. This was an error in judgment, having never met an Igdan before in my life. I only knew the Igdans as a strange folk who never left their far-flung systems at the edge of the galaxy.
The first thing I noticed in the spaceport was its emptiness. I had expected an attendant or controller to ask for money and to offer refueling. None of this happened. Only a poorly marked fuel connection covered with rust, mud, and alien graffiti rose from the ground near my ship. There was no place to scan a financial balance or input currency chips; the fuel connection was simply a telescopic tube that attached to the corresponding port on my small shuttlecraft.
I knew very little about the world of Hort due to its relative lack of importance. However, through the underground scientific communities beneath the floorboards of the galaxy’s major nations, I learned of the rumored presence of a creature called a Zoorbanthon on Hort. The sketch of a Zoorbanthon that I bought showed a strange antelope-like animal with majestic horns and luxurious, grey fur.
Beyond the Zoorbanthon’s unusual appearance were its fabled abilities. Its limbs regenerated when lost, and it could see well into the infrared. It could even camouflage itself into its surroundings. In retrospect, I should have been more skeptical, but I believed these stories wholeheartedly. If I could have studied the Zoorbanthon and sample its genes, it could have had untold applications in a hundred scientific fields. I left the spaceport and found the first vendor to ask for directions, carrying my collapsible survival equipment in my pack and on my belt.
“Excuse me, do you know how to get to the wilderness from here?” I asked.
“Follow the main road towards the forested hills,” they answered. I have read that gender does not exist among Igdans’ unique biology; in their language, there is only one personal pronoun. In the light of day, this Igdan covered their whole body with dark clothing, for Igdan skin burns in sunlight. I could not read any expression through the vendor’s shroud, but at least their voice was clear. How well this brief exchange went gave me false confidence.
I followed the main road. It was mid-morning; the sun filtered through a grey haze of thin clouds comparable to smog on industrialized worlds. Hort had no such industry; it lacked many natural resources. Most of the buildings in this commune were residential, made of stone reinforced with metal scrap and rising to around five stories. However, as Igdans are often shorter (The tallest I have seen barely rose to my elbows), the buildings appeared more squat than other species would build.
The roads were dark gravel, fine enough to become dust when a vehicle rolled or hovered over them, but rough enough not to infiltrate one’s shoes and clothing. Technology here was the combined output of wasteland scavenging and wasteland ingenuity; no two vehicles, weapons, or consoles looked the same. While such technology was inevitably inferior, I found a strange quality to it: a far-off power had wrought nothing. The hands of the people made everything here.
Block by block, the buildings of the commune became shorter, turning from stout complexes to small shacks, interspersed with small gardens and livestock pens. The animals domesticated here did not interest me, but I cataloged them anyway: fat, flightless birds with grey feathers and stalk eyes; squat mammals with so much white-grey fur that it hid all features but their thin legs and claw feet.
The road soon turned from gravel into mud. I took out my telescopic walking stick; it was useful in prodding the grey mud for sinkholes. It is said that if the communes make the Communism in the Free Galactic Zone’s Anarcho-Communism, then the wastelands make the Anarchy. Out here, however, there was not one soul in sight; the only essence of civilization was the occasional corroded piece of scrap metal partially protruding from the mud and stones. I considered this good; I was never a strong or muscular person, never needing to train anything other than my mind. As unknown as the Igds were to me, I was under no illusion that I could take even a single short Igdan in a fight.
As the day moved on, I came to a forest. Truly, that was a generous word; by standard definition, the forests of Hort were dead. Instead of green trees and singing birds, grey, rotting wood protruded from the ground. No leaves grew on these trees, and they provided no shade from the sun. I remember looking up to check the time and feeling disconcerted in the alien landscape; next to the sun was a small circle of light; the other star at the opposite edge of the system.
Creatures lived in this forest despite its deathly appearance. Transparent-bodied snakes chased wide-eyed rodents through the mud. Iridescent, green-shelled beetles adorned the branches like jewelry. Black carrion birds with four wings flew overhead and perched on rotting branches, some close enough for me to see green on their beaks; the color of Igdan blood. I photographed these, careful to not leave my digital camera running for too long to save its charge. These creatures were unknown in my databases, but they would only be footnotes next to the Zoorbanthon.
Aside from the animals, in these forests lived people. I followed the footprints of small shoes and the tracks of wheeled vehicles to a camp in a clearing of a dead forest. A roving commune of Igdans, I presumed. After all, did the dangers of the wasteland not warrant body armor if one lived there? Igdans grew quickly; was there any cause for concern when I saw no children among them?
I confirmed my peaceful thoughts when the Igdans did not stop me from entering the boundaries of their group. My only acknowledgment was a look-over by a masked Igdan from two arms’ lengths away; they did not threaten or accost my presence or even search me for weapons.
“Which of you knows the land best?” I asked the closest Igdan. My accent must have given them pause, but the Igdan soon replied:
“The chieftain knows the land best, for the chieftain leads us on our travels.” I thought I must have misunderstood their word usage; communes had no chieftains.
“Can I speak thereto?” I knew Igdans avoided pronouns when possible.
“Yes,” the Igdan replied. “The chieftain is plotting our route beside the six-wheeled transport.” I followed the Igdan’s extended arm to the largest vehicle in the clearly temporary camp. Walking around the huge vehicle, I found this Igdan crouching casually over a flickering holographic map cast in white light. They wore an intricate full-body wrap. The grey, spotted furs of creatures linked patches of faded leather to thin armor plates. A firearm sat cradled to their thigh in a holster, and a larger rifle sat beside them.
“Are you in charge of this group?” I asked.
“Yes. I am Chieftain Yuritor.” This Igdan’s voice was deeper, but they were of average height for their species. Their impression on me was that of a person who could butcher and eat an animal without batting an eye, laughing and conversing casually the entire time. “What do you want?”
“I was told that you are the best navigator here.”
“That is why I am the chieftain, and have been for many years.” If they thought my comment was a compliment, they did not show it.
“I am researching wildlife in these forests. In your travels, have you ever seen a creature called a Zoorbanthon?”
“I have not seen the Zoorbanthons in years. They live in a domain south of here. It is less than a day’s travel if you keep to the high ground. Good luck.” He continued his sentence, but my attention was waning. Multiple Zoorbanthons? Here? I am lucky. In retrospect, luck had nothing to do with it. The next thing I knew, Yuritor was handing me a spare pistol. The chieftain’s predisposition to violence shocked me, but I accepted it anyway. The wastelands were dangerous, after all.
I began along the path Yuritor had given. I did not realize that a day-night cycle on Hort was equivalent to about thirty-six hours until I saw the sun’s lethargic motion across the sky. Two hours into my longer-than-expected trek, the landscape became more undulated and the dead trees taller. Eight-limbed monkeys leapt between ivy-bound branches. Light rain made the grey mud run.
I slept for some time during my travel, about halfway through, in the dark shadow of a narrow cave entrance. When I woke, it was closer to evening, and strange birds sung among the dead branches. I continued along my path. As I neared my destination hours later, I noticed moss on the dead trees. I even crossed a small creek with small fish swimming in it.
I soon came across a permanent camp in the forest. Surprised to see anything but empty forests, I was under no illusion this time: I had stumbled across the hideout of a wilderness gang. Horrifyingly, from their tents and parked vehicles flew a black banner bearing the standard of a Zoorbanthon.
As the brigands noticed me, I realized for the first time the amount of trouble I had maneuvered myself into. Clearly, I had misunderstood: Yuritor said “Zoorbanthons” not indicating multiple creatures, but the name of a gang. He had given me a weapon because the nomads, too, were a gang of vagabonds. Yuritor was no navigator, but a bandit lord.
All this flashed through my mind as two Igdans grabbed me. I did not struggle, for Igdans are strong despite their diminutive size. But soon, among the gang, I saw others; a burly Remenkan with three of her five forehead horns broken and a group of pink-skinned Tatah sharing what appeared to be inhaled drugs. The Igdans struck me from behind my knees, forcing me to kneel before an Igdan with horns wrought of rusted scaffolding attached to his helmet. My captors took the pistol Yuritor gave to me, and handed it to the helmeted Igdan, who spun the weapon idly in his hand.
“Who comes before the Zoorbanthons to seek death?” The gang was already assembling around its leader and laughing.
“I... am merely a traveler... searching for wildlife,” I stammered. They laughed at my accent until their leader spoke.
“And what wildlife do you seek? For out here, all life is as wild as it comes.” One of the intoxicated Tatah fell over laughing into the mud. Another Tatah of the group stood up shakily and tried to grope the Remenkan woman. She knocked him unconscious with a backhand slap. He fell on his laughing comrade in the mud.
“My... friend... Yuritor told me that- that I could find Zoorbanthons in this area.” I did not know how to reference Yuritor in any other way in the language. My hopes that there was no animosity between the gangs melted away as Igdan members of the Zoorbanthon gang hissed and growled. I knew to be intimidated despite their frail appearances.
“So, Yuritor has sent a spy to assassinate us? The spy even has one of the Mudboots’ pistols! Such fools; this ‘assassin’ seems quite thin and cowardly for one of the Tall Species!” There was laughter and anger at once; Mudboots was likely their name for the nomads who wandered through the grey mud without end; Tall Species for those who forced the diminutive Igdans to look up when speaking.
“No! I promise... I thought the tales of the creature were true. I... didn’t know that the Zoorbanthons were actually a gang!”
“A gang? We are a Wasteland Commune!” Intoxicated cheers of triumph soon replaced laughter as the leader shouted. “We shall have a vote! Either we kill the spy, or torture the spy!” There were cheers and raucous laughter, especially after the leader rolled his voice as he did. As far as I could tell, no vote ever took place. Several of the Igdans drew their crooked blades.
“Wait! I will lead you back to them,” I said in submission. The sounds of a blood-hungry gang instantly stopped.
“Yes, very good!” The leader clapped his hands. “The spy will lead us back to the master! Do not fret, comrades. There will be plenty of killing and torture once we capture the Mudboots!” The brigands seemed to be tired of cheering, as their response was almost comically subdued. As the gangsters rushed about, reloading the turrets of their vehicles and battening down their camp, I realized that I may have just started a gang war, and I could do nothing about it.
I followed my footprints in the mud until the strengthening rain washed them away. I rode tied to the leader’s steed, a large, odorous animal with thick fur and large horns. Vehicles rolled behind us. I knew at this point that we were following the correct path, for we passed the cave I had slept in. However, it was already nighttime; only Hort’s bright, crater-covered moons lit the land in a white-blue hue. With the rains, I must have made a wrong turn at some point, for I saw lights in the distance that were too spread out to be the nomads.
Nevertheless, the leader shouted a battle cry, declaring the Mudboots found and charging forth with weapons blazing. The vehicles spit mud from their tires, and gangsters fired their woefully outdated ballistic rifles, scavenged coil charges, and even a few crossbow railguns into the air. A hail of bullets, plasma-encapsulated ball bearings, and sharpened bolts of metal tore through the dead trees as we entered a clearing.
Nothing happened for some time until an alarm sounded. Traps ensnared the Zoorbanthon gang members, some of whom fell into spike pits or were lit ablaze in hidden wells of an oil-like substance. Automatic weapons fire returned in the distance. I cowered behind the gang leader until his steed fell into a spike pit. The leader jumped off. The furred animal took the spikes for me, dying instantly; its foul stench filled the ditch. Fortunately for me, the fall had broken the saddle and cut my bonds.
I could not climb out of the trench so soon after torrential rains, for the walls were too slick with mud. But I was tall enough to see out of the trap to observe the battle’s carnage. The Zoorbanthons must have noticed that the Mudboots were nowhere to be found, but they did not seem to care. Igdans emerged screaming from small huts, some of which were on fire. Pillagers ransacked grain storages, and both sides sustained gruesome casualties. Green Igdan blood coated the walls of the huts and the spikes of traps.
Suddenly, a new sound came from the distance; the combustion engines of vehicles and the cracking of dead wood. Lights and gunfire streamed from the six-wheeled transport truck that I instantly recognized as Yuritor’s. Gunmen leaned out of the vehicle’s rusted roof hatches. They cared little for the small wooden village; the tank-like cars crushed attackers and thatch huts alike.
As the lights of battle filled the field, I saw an Igdan without a full-body suit for the first time; in the night, their skin did not burn. The Igdan I saw had pale grey skin tinted green; Igdan skin was transparent, I realized. In the light, I saw the Igdan’s strange, green organs through the bare skin of their lower back. Their eyes were large and glassy, and their head was bald. This one wielded a flamethrower, setting fire to the wheels of vehicles from both attacking gangs.
“WILL YOU STOP THIS RUCKUS?!” I heard Yuritor shout in his distinctive voice. “WE’RE TRYING TO SLEEP!”
“Shut up, Mudboot!” the Zoorbanthon chief replied with a shout. Yuritor shot them dead with an energy pistol. Despite the death of the enemy chieftain, the battle continued for hours yet with no clear victor. The few vehicles that still ran crashed into each other or fled; in fleeing, at least one Igdan fell to their doom, joining me in my spike pit.
Just as the pit’s smell and fast-growing insect swarm became nauseating, the last sounds of battle waned to silence, and the sun rose over the horizon for another long day. How did these Igdans survive on a thirty-six-hour body clock?! I would never know. Soon, an Igdan approached the trap. They left their face uncovered in the gentle morning light. I could see their skull and green capillaries, as well as rows of thin, needle-like teeth. The Igdan offered me their hand, seeing the broken bonds behind me; finally, an Igdan understood my unwilling part in all of this. After explaining my story to a few other Igdans, they gave me a collapsible three-wheeled vehicle to return to the spaceport.
At the spaceport, I was partially expecting my ship to be stolen as part of the madness. Luckily, it was not; the three-wheeled vehicle, now caked in mud, was even small enough to stow discreetly in one of my ship’s unpressurized cargo compartments. Even though the true Zoorbanthons were likely entirely myth, the knowledge that I survived the trauma of this experience tempered my disappointment. I left Hort in a hurry, eager to move on and be more careful when I arrived at the next Igdan planet: One down, six to go.
M. L. McCortney
M. L. McCortney writes science fiction from his home in western New York. While working to get his debut novel published, he also writes short stories, builds model rockets, and expands the history of the distant galaxy portrayed in all his writings, whether through art, maps, or written appendices.