In search of water
I wondered if I should give them a name. Spushes; short for spiky bushes. Or perhaps urchhogs, because they looked like a mix between hedgehogs and sea urchins. Or bushchins, bush and urchins?
I decided to go with the first one just because it was the least awful of the lot. Giving my enemy a name seemed like the correct thing to do; it made them less menacing alien horrors and more common critters in my mind. More approachable.
I had never been a big fan of hunting. I loved the outdoors, yes, but the biggest thing I’d ever killed was a small lizard that I had once accidentally stepped on. That would probably change soon.
I designated a list of essentials to bring along: my canteen and bottles, which I needed to refill with fresh water urgently. I clipped them to my belt. Well, I clipped the canteen, the bottles were plastic and didn’t really have anything to clip on, so I tied them with some rope. My compass, in case I got disoriented. And of course my weapon. I didn’t want to fight the spushes (God, that sounded so bad), but it might turn out to be necessary.
I also took the bear spray and clipped that too to my belt. God, I looked like a Christmas tree with all these things jingling from my belt. But it was better than wearing the torn backpack, or having to carry them in my hands.
I took a deep breath and left my cave again, into the tunnel.
I was getting familiar with this tunnel by now, this being third time I was going through it. Still, I couldn’t help but marvel at how beautiful it all looked. So serene. The softly glowing moss, with the occasional stalk ending in a pretty pink or yellow flower. The long and zagged veins of pearlescent white going through the rock. The heavy air that you couldn’t see but certainly feel.
At last, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. How fitting. Hopefully that wasn’t any symbolism of what was to come.
I exited and found myself on the plateau again. Couldn’t help but go to the edge and peek down. The forest extended on both sides into the distance, with the middle of it being the green corridor where the spushes seemed to live. If I looked really closely, it seemed like the cave and forest sloped a little bit towards the middle; so if there was a river or water anywhere that’s where I would most likely find it. With the spushes.
No use complaining, I would need to go down there anyways. I started down the slope when almost slipped and rolled down; the voice was back again in my head.[ hugom, 1/20/2020 9:16:33 AM
Should it be the same SYSTEM voice, or a new slightly more friendly system local administrator? I think I’m leaning more towards the second, but I am unsure how I would differentiate the two in the future. Just dialogue tags like in normal speech?]
[ SETTLEMENT CORES SHALL NOW BE GRANTED ]
I caught myself and avoided what could’ve been a pretty bad tumble down. No, not the same voice. This one was still loud, uncomfortably so, but it was slightly different.
[ AS THE LARGEST GROUP OF MEMBERS OF YOUR SPECIES IN THE CURRENT SECTOR YOU ARE GRANTED A SETTLEMENT CORE ]
A light shone in mid-air, at around eye height. It shone brighter and brighter, and then abruptly stopped. In place of it was now a round crystal of deep violet color hanging in the air. Melon sized. I stared at it dumbly.
[ YOU HAVE AUTOMATICALLY CLAIMED OWNERSHIP OF THE SETTLEMENT CORE DUE TO BEING THE ONLY MEMBER OF YOUR GROUP. ]
Something inside the floating crystal twinkled, and I felt my body respond to it. It was like a prod, a push into my very self. Into me.
[ CONGRATULATIONS. BY CLAIMING THE SETTLEMENT CORE YOU HAVE PROVEN YOURSELF THE WORTHIEST OF YOUR GROUP AND ARE GRANTED WITH A MERIT OF LEADERSHIP ]
A fizzling sensation, in my right hand. Instinctively I tried to jerk it away, but the fizzling remained. There was a light there now too, similar to the one that had appeared in the air just moments ago that had produced the crystal. I waved my arm about frantically, but the light kept shining brighter and brighter. I did not want my arm to be replaced by a round crystal, or any kind of object for that matter.
Instead, the light winked out of existence and I felt something materialize in my hand. For no discernible reason my fingers closed tightly around it, as if it was a treasure that should not be let go under any circumstance.
I looked at the object. It was white; a white stone tablet with circular black patterns inscribed into it. A myriad miniature glyphs, static, but seemingly flowing from one circle to the next.
They were incredibly elaborate. I had never seen anything like them, and yet they seemed somehow familiar. Not any glyph by itself, but together they almost made sense. Almost, as if I could read —
[ YOU ARE THE FIRST INHABITANT OF THIS WORLD TO CLAIM A SETTLEMENT CORE. CONGRATULATIONS. YOU SHOW PROMISE. YOU ARE GRANTED AN ADDITIONAL MERIT. ]
The voice interrupted my train of thought. I expected another magical light to spring into existence, but it didn’t happen. In fact, nothing happened at all.
Confused I looked at the stone tablet. And the floating crystal. They had just suddenly… appeared.
But I supposed I should not have been surprised. If whatever being that was speaking into my mind could warp and change the entire world, its landscapes and vegetations and animals, at its will, then this act of materialization would have been an insignificant trifle to it. The thought was uncomfortable.
I looked at the floating violet orb. The “settlement core”. What did that even mean?
I touched it. Nothing happened. It just slowly floated backwards a little bit from the impulse.
I carefully put the stone tablet on the mossy ground, and tried to grab the melon sized crystal with both my hands.
It wouldn’t go down. I could move it left and right, even up, but it wouldn’t budge below eye height. It was a bizarre thing. The crystal had a certain weight to it, and retained some momentum. If I pushed it left or right, parallel to the ground, it would slowly float in that direction until it lost momentum and then stopped. Up was easier to push, but then it would slowly fall down, as if it was swimming in a thick liquid. At least until eye height, then it would just stop. Didn’t matter how hard I pulled, it stayed there. I even tried hanging off of it, but even with my entire bodyweight it stayed firmly floating.
I didn’t have time for this. I stopped acting like a monkey and left the mysteriously useless orb and the tablet that evoked such an uncomfortable familiar feeling inside of me there on the top of the plateau. I would retrieve them later. As it stood, I still needed water. I grabbed my spear off the ground with my right hand and prepared to descend again.
The wounds were gone. They were gone. I had shoved the spiky spush from my arm, and my hand had suffered for it. But now there was no trace of any kind of wound or puncture on it.
I quickly checked under the bandages of my left arm, but those remained. Plus, I could feel my entire arm throbbing a little, so those wounds were definitely still there.
But my right hand was intact.
Had it been the light? When the tablet materialized in my palm? Had it just magically healed me?
It was all just too much. Too much at once. I needed the water. I would go down, find a river or something, get water, and escape back to my cave. Then I could think about all this stuff.
And so I descended again. Thankfully, my spear doubled as a walking stick, and the way down was a little bit easier this time. I kept an eye on the trees and the green spiky bushes. Focused as I was now, I noticed that most of them were actual bushes, not murderous creatures. They just looked very very similar.
Last time they had not attacked me immediately. I could see the tree I had made my spear out of from here; it had probably taken me a good half hour or so to cut it down. Perhaps if I didn’t bother them too much they’d leave me alone? Or perhaps they had taken offense at me harming the tree.
It wasn’t like I could experiment to see what it was, so I decided to do the next best thing and make a wide arc around any of them. I walked, spear held tightly and bottles jingling at my belt, along the mossy corridor that ran through the cave. Whenever I saw a spush I made sure to not get too close, and that seemed to have the desired effect of them ignoring me. It took me longer to cover the distance because I had to be constantly zig-zagging, but not being chased by hordes of spushes was certainly worth it.
I did not go into the forest. Perhaps I was a bit exposed here in the open, but the thought of entering made me uncomfortable. At least here I could see the spushes. What if there was murderous vines or something similar in there? I wouldn’t even be able to distinguish it from the surrounding vegetation before I was done for. I had no idea what the forest contained, and I did not feel very curious at the moment. Curiosity killed the cat, and I did not want to be the cat.
It was at this point, a few hundred meters of walking into the cavern, that I noticed a small gully opening up in the middle of the corridor. The sheet of moss parted a little, and I could hear the burble of a small stream below. Somehow, even in the stressed hyper-vigilant state I was in my face contorted into a stupid smile. I had found water!
My first big success left me grinning, and I couldn’t get the expression of my face. I had been right; the middle was the deepest point in the cavern.
The stream however was too deep to access, so I kept walking along the gully.
Always mindful of the spushes. They seemed to be increasing in numbers the further I went along.
A little while later the gully widened and the stream had risen almost to ground height. I couldn’t wait any longer and crouched down next to the stream, submerging my hands in the water.
It was cool.
It wasn’t cool in the way teenagers try to be, nor was it cool in the way a January morning might be. No, it wasn’t really even cold; perhaps only slightly below the agreeable temperature the cavern had.
The coolness of it was the coolness that a soda commercial tries to sell to its viewers; the promised moment of cracking open the aluminum can on a sweltering summer day. It was the coolness of the bed pillow that is turned, of the water that a drowsy person might splash on their face before preparing to set out for the day.
In short, it felt refreshing.
For a moment I forgot myself and just drank, not using my bottles, not even using my hands to cup the water, just submerging my face entirely in the wondrous liquid and drinking like an animal.