Excruciating didn’t quite cover it. The hike up the gradual incline felt more like a stroll along death’s edge. It only took half an hour for my legs to become sore, then my lungs started burning and every step required concentration and brought pain. Even if I hadn’t been overworked and half-starved from the previous weeks, the unending upward stroll would’ve severely taxed me. I like to think it would’ve taxed anyone.
Several others offered to walk while I rode a vinnie, but I felt as right about that as I did about eating them. The other colonists rode their backs, some of them in pairs. They squealed at first as the follicles of hair squirmed against them but they eventually settled down. I chose to hike at the back of the column, pausing now and then to appreciate the views while gasping for breath. The saving grace with the vinnies was their plodding pace. I could walk and catch up, stop to suck down precious oxygen, then repeat. I tried conserving my water, but we looked to be a mere quarter of the way up by the time I’d drunk half my supply, which forced me to ration it even more judiciously.
Lunch had to be eaten on the move, as even without the chip dangling in front of the lead vinnie, they didn’t seem to know how to stop. Tarsi dropped off the back of her vinnie and joined me. There was plenty of cooked meat left over; I knew she would prefer to have some of it but she shared my bombfruit instead. We walked and ate in silence, my lungs hardly up for the hike, much less a conversation while I staggered along.
A few hours after lunch, my legs and lungs were too shot for me to maintain my ethical stance. There was no way I was going to be able to stay with the group unless I took a ride and rested myself. After admitting my defeat, Britny moved off the rear vinnie and joined one further up, leaving me room to join Tarsi. She dropped off and walked beside me, coaxing me along as I huffed and puffed and tried to mount the animal.
“You have to grab the fur,” she told me.
I wanted to tell her I was trying but got out nothing more than a wheeze. The way the fur waved, it seemed like its skin was in motion, as if the beast were a living conveyor belt. I tried to keep in mind that the fur along its back wasn’t really being used for locomotion—that it was just the ends waving. I kicked myself for being a wimp and decided to just grab, pull, and apologize.
I lunged over the back of the vinnie, trying to give more than a half-hearted effort as I grabbed some of the moving bristles. The rest of the fur wiggled across my stomach, sending shivers up and down my spine. I had to hold on pretty tight, or the pushing movement of the hair would’ve sent me right off its ass and onto mine.
Tarsi pushed at my feet, urging me forward. I let go with one hand and reached up for another hold further up. Pulling myself along, I felt the hair beneath me bend the other direction and the wiggling begin to
With my belly right on the vinnie’s back, it didn’t feel quite as creepy as I thought it would. And not once did the creature seem to notice my weight, neither swaying nor slowing. Tarsi grabbed my calf, then thigh, then pulled herself up until her chest rested on my back, her breath playing across my neck.
“Is that so bad?” she asked.
It wasn’t, and I tried to catch my breath to admit it.
Tarsi left her hands on my shoulders. I felt her head turn sideways and rest on the top of my spine. I shifted my head the other direction to look away from the center of the tree and out at the world moving by. Every few feet, we crept behind one of the jutting outcroppings of bark and our world descended into darkness. Then we would pop out into daylight as the cylindrical tunnel broke through the exterior of the tree at the bases of the cog-like indentions. It was like passing row upon row of open windows, each one providing a beautiful glimpse of the clearing below. In the distance, I could see more trees across a clearing smaller than the one our base occupied. In half a day, we had gone around the perimeter of the tree three times—if I had counted the passing of our wide clearing correctly.
“How many times do you think we go around to get to the top?” I asked Tarsi.
“I asked Kelvin the same thing. They thought it was between ten or twelve times.”
I hugged the vinnie, as appreciative of its service as I could be. “This isn’t too bad,” I told Tarsi, who squeezed my shoulders in response.
I woke some time later to find the tunnel shaded in dusk. Letting go with one hand, I rubbed my eyes and looked out below where large branches reached out of the trunk and up toward the canopy. My shifting seemed to wake Tarsi, who kissed me on the back of the neck and said she needed to stretch.
Her body slid off of mine as if drug backwards. I lifted my chest and allowed the hairs to stir beneath me. As soon as I pushed back slightly, the vinnie did the rest, its fur carrying me down its back and right off its rump.
I landed roughly on my hands and knees and tried to stand, my legs still half asleep.
“How long were we out?” Tarsi asked.
Tarsi grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the edge of one of the outcroppings. We gazed out at the land below, my sense of direction destroyed by the nap and looming darkness.
“Looks like more of those holes down there,” Tarsi said, pointing to perfectly circular dots scattered across the verdant green.
“That limb is massive,” I said, pointing out and to the side.
“I hope that means we’re close.”
I joined her in looking up, but it was hard to judge how far away the canopy was. “Let’s keep up with the others,” I said, losing sight of the back of the train in the dim light.
We walked at the rear for almost half an hour, and my lungs and legs started to burn again. Somehow, though, the pain and tiredness weren’t as scary as before, having survived it once. Plus, the psychological boost of knowing I could get on the vinnie at any time prevented any panic from setting in. It was the panic that made the tiredness transform into exhaustion.
As it grew even darker outside, I took to dragging one hand against the inner wall as I held Tarsi’s tightly with the other. Then, without warning, exhaustion seemed to overtake me, and my legs began shaking uncontrollably.
“I think I need to go lie down,” I said—
Then I felt the entire tree move beneath my feet, nearly throwing me to the ground. Beside me, Tarsi’s arms swung wildly, and her hand slipped out of my own. I heard her scream, her voice moving away from me and toward the open air and the great height. Reaching out, groping for her in the darkness, I felt our hands touch several times—the moment of panic stretching out into an eternity of dread. I touched her sleeve, grabbed it, and yanked her close, both of us falling to the floor of the tunnel.
“What’s going on?” she yelled.
A symphony of whistles grew outside, the sound of hundreds of bombfruit streaking through the air. I almost got out of my mouth that it was another earthquake when our vinnie crashed into us, his thistles moving in reverse, powering him down the tree.
Tarsi and I kept hold of each other as the large creature squeezed between us. We clutched with both hands and formed a human bridge over his back as the movement of the hair beneath us tried to propel us up the tree and toward the vinnie’s head.
Higher up the spiral, someone started yelling, telling us to stop the vinnies. In the dim light filtering through the open side of the tunnel, I could see the next vinnie close on the heels of the other, the entire train moving in reverse. When the break in the chain reached us, I pulled Tarsi to my side, getting her away from the open air. The second animal passed, someone on its back yelling at it and us. Behind me, I could feel the tree shivering, the coarse wood vibrating against my spine.
“We have to wait it out,” I told Tarsi, yelling over all the other people’s shouts.
Another vinnie passed with someone hurrying along beside it, hugging the inner wall. The form bumped into me before I could move out of the way or warn them.
“Porter?” A face leaned in close to mine.
“Karl? What the hell, man? How do we stop them?”
“Screw it,” he said. He grabbed my arm as the tree continued to vibrate. “We’re almost there. Plenty more where those—”
A rumble cut him off, a sound like grinding, splintering wood. It wasn’t the noise of the tremors, and it completely drowned out the whistling of the bombfruit. We all froze, except for the vinnies, which seemed to double their speed. They brushed past us, carrying a rider or two along with them as the noise grew louder, drawing near.