THE SECRET OF ALTRUSIA
Part 7 The Trek Begins
“It….it’s snowing.” Said Will, hardly believing what they were seeing.
“Yeah…” answered Holly, in a far-off, dreaming voice. “But…that’s not possible. Is it?”
Will mutely shook his head as the impossible snowflakes continued to drift and swirl out of the leaden sky. Already, the white, powdery stuff was clinging to the drooping fronds of the trees, and was steadily forming a white covering on the ground. Holly mutely reached an arm out, as though to verify to herself that the snow was real. The flakes landed icily on her outstretched palm. She felt that it was wet, not the kind of snow that would be likely to blanket the land in drifts, but the very fact it was happening signaled that the land could be in very dire trouble indeed.
Will and Holly looked at each other, both suddenly comprehending the vast implications of this. If this continued, it could the end of life on the surface of Altrusia…perhaps even for them.
They stepped warily out of the pylon. The wet snow fell in the their hair and on their clothes. “Listen!” Will said suddenly. “hear that?’
They both listened. Out over the breadth of the land of the lost, they could hear the sound of the skylons-not just those that continued to spin and flicker above them, but in the distance as well, across the entire valley.
They exchanged glances, but neither spoke. Both of them knew what this had to mean. Enik was right, at least in part. This couldn’t be the doing of the sleestak, or merely a malfunction in this particular pylon. Somehow the whole system was breaking down. That had to be it.
“Let’s get back to the Temple.” said Will. “maybe Jack will know what to do.” Both of them rather doubted, but there didn’t seem anything they could do right now, so they headed back.
They found Jack and Cha-Ka waiting for them on the plaza, clearly as perplexed by the snow as they were. Cha-Ka was gazing about at the now in wonderment, the flakes clinging to his fur. “Cha-Ka no like snow.” he said.
“Well, kids,” Jack said. “What happened this time? Wait, don’t tell me you were fooling around with one of the pylons.”
“We don’t know what happened!” Holly blurted. But then they both exchanged looks of partial guilt. That wasn’t quite true, because they had been inside a pylon when it happened. But could they have really caused this? They didn’t even touch the matrix. “it’s not quite that simple.” Will explained.
“Would you two mind telling me everything that happened since you left?” Jack asked.
“And don’t leave anything out.”
Will explained everything that had occurred since they left to fill the waterbags, explaining everything, including the run-in with Spike, and the appearance of the skylons.
At last Jack said, “Well, let’s turn in for the night. If this hadn’t cleared up the morning, we’re heading back to Enik’s cave, and see if he can help us.”
That night, the Marshals, Cha-Ka, and Jinal slept with their fire burning well into the night to insure warmth inside the Temple.
But when they slid back the door the next morning a new surprise greeted them-the snow had stopped! The morning sun was shining bright and golden through the ferns, which shone with inordinate moisture, but were otherwise undamaged. There was no sound of gyrating skylons. Essentially, the land looked as normal as ever. The roars, honks and grunts of dinosaurs going about their everyday business sounded through the trees.
All of them were naturally relieved. After some debate, they decided on finishing their preparations for the proposed expedition. The snow might not have lasted but it appeared that Enik was right. Something must have gone wrong with all of the pylons at once. Was it something like an electrical short? They weren’t sure, but they decided to investigate. Next time it might be worst.
After securing all their provisions, they set out, again in the direction of the black pylon. They reached the region of swamp where they found the new sauropod species about mid-morning. A great number of the beasts were still about. But what puzzled Holly in particular was that the herd seemed to have increased since last time. The huge herbivorous animals were moving about leisurely, ripping the sweet fronds off the profusion of cycads and williamsonias, grinding and pulverizing them with scores of flat teeth. The animals were enormous, though more leanly built, and not quite so bulky as the brontosaurs. They looked even bigger close-up, and the humans and Paku had come very close to the herd this time. It mad them a bit nervous. The morning sun glistened on their olive-green hides.
“Let’s give them some space,” Jack cautioned. They all edged slowly away from the herd’s perimeter. The monstrous creatures continued feeding, snapping branches noisily in their jaws. Occasionally, one or another of the strange animals would rear upon its hind limbs and heave its forelegs to crash down one of the large conifers. This provided ample opportunity for the little ones to have their first meal of conifer needles. Holly winced at the first deafening boom, as the tree crashed down.
“Wow!” she exclaimed. “Those things are like living chainsaws!”
“Think they might clear the forest?” Will asked.
Jack looked at his nephew curiously and with some apprehension. “You know, that just might be possible. The way they’re going it looks as though they’ve cleared half the area around here.”
Glancing around at the profusion of felled trees littering the area, all of them realized the this was true.
“There’s something else.” Holly ventured. “It looks like there’s more of them. Don’t you think so, Will?”
“I’m not sure.” Her brother answered testily. “But you could be right.”
“I think she is right.” said Jack humorlessly.
They both looked at him in sudden alarm.
“I think she is.” Jack repeated. “from the looks of things I’d say this herd has doubled in number.”
“Yeah,” Will answered slowly. “When Holly and I were first here, there didn’t seem that many. In fact, there might not have been more then ten!”
“And the last time we were here….” Holly said.
“I’d say there were at least twenty individuals in this herd.” Uncle Jack finished. “And if their population is increasing at the same rate, they could have the entire jungle stripped clean within a month!”
“But where are they all coming from?” Will asked.
“For some reason, our friends here seem to be reproducing faster than your average dinosaur. There seem to be a lot of half-grown ones around, and that means they could be reaching sexual maturity at a faster rate. And then if their offspring grow just as fast….”
“Wait! That might not be the only reason.” Jinal said suddenly.
“What do you think, Jinal?” Jack asked.
Remember what your friend Enik told us? There are ‘rifts’ here—tears in the time-space fabric. You said maybe the earthquakes could have opened them. This place where the black pylon is may be one of them. Maybe they came from there.”
“What do you mean?” Will asked.
“They could have come from outside.”
“Outside this closed universe, you mean?”
“Look!” Holly said. They all looked in the direction in which Holly pointed. The herd of weird sauropods was still munching through the trees in plain view. One of the animals had distanced himself from the herd and had ambled into the clearing made by the fallen trees. Only this animal was different from its fellow herd members.
Unlike the olive-hue of the other beasts, the hide of this animal was a pure, milky white, with pinkish undertones. Its extraordinary color shone like porcelain in the Altrusian sun. It plodded near them, affording the awed humans a clear view of itelf. The beast’s small retinas glistened like pink sapphires.
Cha-Ka was particularly amazed by the animal. “Tahu!” he exclaimed, wondering if the appearance of this animal was a sign. They were heading into unfamiliar territory, and this had already mad him nervous. His people generally regarded abnormalities like the strange, white animals that were occasionally born as a sign of some sort. Of course, the Pakuni, couldn’t know what it was that caused albinism.
“That one looks like a total albino.” Jack said, as the animal moved back among the ferns and conifers.
“That means it’s another mutation, right?” Will asked.
“Yes, albinos are caused some sort of mutant genes.”
“Maybe it’s another sign that mutations are increasing around here.”
“That very well could be, Will.” Jack nodded. He glanced at his compass. “We’ve had to swerve around this herd of animals, but we’re still heading in the same general direction.”
The walked on, though they were uncertain they could again locate the black pylon. But before long, a low humm-like that of a power-generator, and similar, but unsimilar to the sound produced by most pylons came to their ears. They followed it to the black pylon with ease. Jack made certain to mark their trail, beginning with the clearing of the black pylon. They then head off in a northeasterly direction, into what appeared to be unexplored territory. As they ventured on, the territory did not appear familiar to any of them, though they realized that there were still a few portions of the valley where they had yet to explore. The humming of the black pylon receded and eventually faded out. The land at least, appeared the same as in all other regions of Altrusia, with Mesozoic flora in abundance, and the squawks and calls of the local dinosaurs.
Before long, another faint humm sounded in their ears.
“Hear that?” asked Will. “it sounds like the black pylon! We’ve been going in a circle.”
Jack listened to the faint whine, then shook his head. “I don’t think so, Will. None of this terrain looks familiar. We’re no where near swamp. Otherwise we’d hear those animals tearing up the jungle again.” They all listened. It was true. They would also have heard the splashing and honks of the brontosaurs, but there were none.
They went on squarely in the sound’s direction. Presently, they came upon a black pylon set in center of a clearing. It was an exact duplicate of the other one, and for a moment they all feared that perhaps Will had been correct. But they noticed by the trees that this wasn’t the same clearing.
”I’ve got a weird hunch,” said Jack. “let’s keep on going in this same direction and see what we find.”
They kept on walking, and before long they come upon another clearing and pylon. But to their surprise, this pylon was not an exact duplicate of the other two. Instead of black, the weird alloy of which it was compounded was goldish-red color-unlike any pylon any of them had previously seen. The low whine it emitted was different as well. The exact difference was hard to pinpoint, but it had a curious grating quality to it that strangely lacking in the sounds of both the black plylons and the more familiar goldish and grayish ones.
Jack briefly twisted the pylons’ key and he and Will peered within. There was no strange greenish globe in this one, and the color of the matrix crystals might have been slightly different. But the entire apparatus was unfamiliar, and they didn’t care to experiment-not yet.
They continued on, and discovered yet another pylon of the goldish-red variety, and then two more black pylons followed by another red one. By now, they had begun to notice an obvious pattern.
“You know, Uncle Jack,” Will said, “I’ll bet the next one we run into will be red.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Said Jack. “There’s got to be some kind of pattern to this.”
“Hey, I know!” said Holly. “Maybe we are outside the Land of the Lost—or at least the part of it we know.”
“Well, Enik said there’s some kind of barrier around this place. That keeps the land of the Lost in a ‘closed universe’. Maybe these pylons make some kind of….fence.” she said for lack of a more better term.
“Yeah!” said Will,” Like these pylons create some kind of force field around the valley. Keeping us, the sleestak the dinosaurs, and everything else inside.”
“That may be, but that would mean we’re already outside the land. Or maybe in some kind of separate space-time in between.”
“Yeah…” said Holly. “I’ve noticed something weird. If we’ve gone as far as I think we have we should be near the crevasse by now.”
“Well, maybe we are.” Said Will “That’s not so funny. We’ve just never come this way before.”
“No, I think she’s right.” said Jack. “take a look at those cliffs over there.” He pointed southeast on the horizon. “Do they look familiar to you?”
The cliffs on the horizon were quartz-pink in hue interlayared with white, sedimentary rock. Pterosaurs glided serenely over them.
Will and Holly seemed dumbfounded for a moment. Then Holly said. “I know! Those are the cliffs above the crevasse. Only….”
“We’re seeing them from the back side.” Will finished lamely.
said. “That what I thought. Those are the same cliffs, only we’ve never before
seen them form this particular angle. My guess is, we couldn’t have if
we hadn’t come this way!”
“My guess is, we’ve walked straight through one of the rifts Enik mentioned. If we tried reaching this area by any other route, we’d just end up walking in a circle.”
“You mean…we are outside the Land of the Lost?” Will asked.
“That’s right. Ever since we passed the first black pylon.”
“Can we find our way back?”
“I figure we can, so long as we have our compass.”
“My legs are hurting.” whineed Holly. “Can we stop and rest pretty soon?”
“I was thinking the same thing.” Jack replied. “Sounds like a river up ahead. Could be it’s the same one feeds into the swamp. We’ll make camp there.”
Following Jack’s lead they soon located the river, and set up camp. Will, Holly, and Cha-Ka half-expected for Lulu to come barreling up out of the water, but they were far from that portion of the swamp, and nothing happened.
At least nothing happened for about twenty minutes, after, they had rested, drank eaten, and were beginning to prepare to set off again.
Cha-Ka was the first to hear it: a low grunting deep within the jungle where they had found the last pylon. Followed by the snapping of twigs and saplings, as what ever it was drew ominously near.
All of them were already on their feet, and backing slowly away.
“Ogonsah!” Cha-Ka cried.
“No, Cha-Ka,” Will answered in a shaky voice. “It’s not magic. It’s something worse, I’m afraid!”
Cha-Ka had, during the time had had spent with the Marshals since their arrival in the land, begun to distrust many of the teachings his own Elders had brought him up on. He knew the creation of the land had something to do with beings like Enik, who resembled a smaller version of the sarisataka,who in past times had preyed upon his people, then with the Pakuni God. And the weather the sun the moon, even time itself, had more to do with the strange pylons than with his tribal spirits. And Enik’s people had created the pylons in the first place…that was what the Marshals said, anyway. But he nevertheless had a dreadful feeling about coming here. He had said nothing, trusting that his human friends knew what they were doing, and would protect themselves and him. But he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the black pylon was some kind of the marker, put there as a warning, just as was the strange, milk-colored dinosaur And now…was whatever coming through the trees what the pylon had warned them of? It was some large animal, of that he was certain. But some instinct told him it was not like any of the beasts that shared their valley.
At length, the bizarre head of the animal broke clear of the foliage. The head resembled that of the snaggle-toothed proto-mammals they sometimes encountered in the valley. Most of them were quite small, some no larger than good-sized rate. A few were the size of small dogs. But competition from the more advanced archesarian reptiles kept them few and diminutive. This monster, however, was at least the size of an ox. Saber-like canines extended down from its upper lip to terminate beneath the lower jaw. The mouth opened, drooling threads of translucent saliva as it did so. Short, coarse, fur of a tawny-red covered the predator’s face, becoming denser and more shaggy around the neck and shoulder area. Its semi-mammalian eyes were tiny, and rodent-like, and glinted like black malachite from the quasi-reptilian eye-sockets. But what was most extraordinary was the enormous length of horn, smooth as polished ivory and similar in hue that rose from the flat of the animal’s skull to extend into the air for more than three meters, terminating in a tip tapered to razory keenness.
At the sight of the four humans and Pakuni, the beast gave a series of three coughing barks, then charged them full-throttle.
“Split up!” Jack ordered. From their relative positions, Will, Holly, and Jinal dashed to one side, Jack and Cha-ka the other.
The beast ambled into the clearing, waddling a massive, barrel-shaped body, on four semi-erect legs. A long, stout tail depended from behind.
The massive horned head swerved in each direction, undecided as to which prey to choose. Cha-Ka, looking back over his shoulder at the nightmarish predator issued a sharp squeal. That somehow seemed to decide matters for the monster as it ambled in quickly in the direction of him and Jack Marshal.
“He’s going after Jack!”Will gasped, as the skidded around.
“We’ve got to do something!” Holly shouted “Wait!” said Jinal, retrieving her crystal-embedded rod. “I’ll save them.” The girl dashed forward in the direction of the beast, which was now plowing through the dense marsh grass by the river’s edge.
“Jinal, no!” Will shouted. Then he stopped realizing that if any of them could fend of this animal it was likely Jinal.
predator was slow, and Jack and Cha-Ka had outdistanced it without too much
trouble. Jinal, now only a few meters from the animal, held out her rod, and
ran her thumb over an arrangement of red and yellow crystals near its center. A
sharp beam shot from the rod, piercing the creature’s right flank, causing the
animal to howl in agony. It surged around to face Jinal, but the girl appeared
unfazed, to the further amazement of Will and Holly. Again, the girl passed her
fingers over the extremity of the rod, and with another low scream, another
beam pierced the air. This one seemed to be of lower intensity then the first.
It smacked the beast squarely on the whiskered snout. The creature drew back at
once, holwing, grayish tendrils of smoke wafting from his blackened nostrils.
The animal whirled its huge body around to crash back into the trees where it
“Good riddance!” shouted Holly, as the monster crashed off.
“Good going, Jinal!” said Will as they dashed to her side. They noticed the red and yellow crystals were still pulsing with slowly dissipating heat.
“I’ve never seen a beast like that one.” Jinal said flatly, as she gazed dazedly after it.
“Well, it may surprise you but neither have we!” said Will.
Jack and Cha-Ka joined them, and they all speculated briefly about just what manner of beast it was. It was clearly related to the other mammal-like reptiles in the valley, but it seemed to be some sort of mutant, after the order of Lulu and Torchy. But were animals like it seeping through rents in the space time fabric from some unknown portion of Altrusia, or had they arisen through some fault in the pylons? After all, if there was a breakdown, like Enik had said, and these pylons controlled the organic development within the land……
“I sure hope there aren’t any more things like that up ahead.” Will stated.
“Well, I’m afraid we have to find out.”
said Jack. “let’s follow the river from here on. It looks like it lead s to
those cliffs. Maybe we’ll find more answers there.”