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Xenonegotiationby Lyn Thorne-Alder
Aoife worked her way through the alien terrain, her makeshift machete held in front of her as a face-shield, her other arm gloved to the elbow in what had once been part of her EVA suit.
She needed it. The landscape was hostile, bitter, and violent, the plants thorny, the ground unstable, the animals hungry. They had lost Hiro Zanzibar just yesterday -- he'd fallen into a hidden cavern and broken his neck -- and Jesus Rudolpho two days before that, to a monster they were calling a tigerator, although it had only a superficial resemblance to tiger or gator.
But they had to get off the coast, because their scientists were insisting they were only a few weeks from what looked like a massive yearly flooding. Aoife had grown up not all that far from New Orleans; she understood what a big river flooding would do to their temporary settlement. The area they had landed on was beach backing onto jungle, so it was into the jungle for them.
The route she was taking looked promising. It had none of the poisonous thorn-bushes that plagued them to the North, none of the network of caves that was bothering them to the southeast, and, so far, no tigerators (they seemed to stay further south, on the muddy riverbanks). Aoife moved slowly anyway, not wanting to jinx herself, and, since she'd chosen to explore on her own, not wanting to end up down a hole with a broken ankle.
She was watching the terrain very carefully, watching the flora directly in her path, and keeping an eye out for movement to either side of her, in case a tigerator or something slightly less deadly chose to attack. She was thus entirely unprepared for an attack from above.
And attack it was, not a random swipe with a vine or some deadfall dropping on her. She had just turned her head to follow the movement of a small, brightly-colored bird when she was grabbed, one swift movement yanking her up into the canopy.
Nothing they had encountered yet had yankability as a biological feature, so Aoife spent a moment assuming that a member of the team was playing a very bad joke on her and trying to figure out how to extricate herself without hurting anyone.
It didn't take her more than a couple panicked moments to realize that the strong arm around her ribcage wasn't an arm at all. She thought, for another moment, that they'd discovered this planet's snake-analog, but the thick, ropey thing looked more like a grapevine than a snake, and, as it pulled her further into the canopy, she could see dozens, hundreds more of the long, wriggling arms, the inside surfaces filled with curling feelers.
She tried to get her machete-arm free, wondering if she could chop off the limb that was holding her without dropping to her doom. If she cut right there, she could probably hold on to the vine and swing down Tarzan-style. Maybe she ought to go for the heart of the tree instead?
The whole plant shuddered, vines pulling back from her, one long tentacle reaching for, almost sneaking up on, her knife.
"No way you know what a knife is. You're a plant... I think you're a plant." She could take a specimen back to home base, study it -- if she got out of here. Maybe slice off an extra vine...
As she thought about slicing, the tree shivered again, pulling back.
"Telepathic tree. No way." She shook her head, glad there was nobody out here to hear her. "Okay, so, plants read thoughts. Wait, plants read intent. That's old science, Earth science. Happy thoughts. Calm thoughts, not-food thoughts. Are you even trying to... yeah, that looks like a food-hole."
If the thing holding her was a tree, and the arms flailing about were its branches, then the massive structure in the center had to be its trunk, and, indeed, it was the most treelike part of the whole thing. But where the lower, shorter arms joined the trunk, there was a fissure, with tiny waving feelers like those on the inside of the tentacles, that definitely looked maw-like.
"Okay, not food. I'd give you indigestion, for one, and I could still cut my way out." She glared at the plant, thinking fast. "Let's come up with another plan. What is it you need? Carnivorous plants normally are looking for nutrients, not calories. How about..." She thought of big, steaming piles of poo from the horses they'd grown from embryos, and the pile of compost outside the garden. "We could mulch you. That should help, right?" Plant food, a good weeding to eliminate competitors, maybe pulling some of the deadwood out to get rid of bugs. "We could work together."
The tree paused, Aoife halfway to its maw, and she thought intently of horse poo. Lots and lots and lots of horse poo. Wagonloads of the stuff.
As the tree set her onto the ground, she relaxed. This might not be the best route through the jungle for them, but if the trees could be negotiated with, it might be like having an ally at their back. A tall, tentacled ally that ate unwary passers-by.
Carefully, she patted the trunk. "I'll come by with that manure tomorrow," she told it. "Thanks." She still didn't know how much they understood. But wouldn't it be a laugh if the only sentient species they encountered in this place just happened to technically be a plant?
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