Saturday, 18 January 2014

Chapter 18. Of a Walk in the Mountains

Sunday dawned – as had all the other days since we had been on Perinent – cloudless and promising warmth.

I got up early, and dressed in my light purple robe. I went to the Pedia room, and exchanged greetings with Harv’I. Then I asked him, in what order do you think we should go about bringing the guilty and the trainees to Perinent? One first, the other first, or a mixture?

Harv’I’s answer was, Neil, you do like to ask difficult questions.

That’s why I’m Team Leader (smiley face), I posted. I ask the awkward questions early.

* * *

At breakfast, we were all in our special robes. They seemed to fit us in a different way to our normal ones. Ben’s mid-blue, for example, had exaggerated shoulders, making him look even bigger than he was. My light purple robe flattered me, drawing the eye upwards rather than outwards. Lily, splendid in her own pale green, said to me, “If you had head-dress, you would look like a bishop.”

“Mitre than thou,” I replied.

Shami, in bright pink, sat and smiled. Among the Team, this colourful show was more her doing than anyone else’s. But it was Michael and Gabriel who took the big plaudits. They wore the Seraphim ceremonial colour – red. Now, I’m sure you have seen Buddhist monks wearing red. This wasn’t that colour. Nothing like it. This was red, red, red. And it made them look even more imposing than in their daily yellow.

It came time to decide who would go in the morning or the afternoon. “It will be cooler in the morning,” said Michael. “But there may be fog. So, it may be better walking in the afternoon. Each of you must decide which you prefer. Or, of course, if you want you can stay in the ’mobile, or you can choose not to go at all. It’s up to each of you.”

“I’ll go in the morning,” said Ray. “I have lamb to prepare and roast in the afternoon.”

“And it is my turn to cook lunch, so I will go in the afternoon,” said Jenna. “Marie, you have already done breakfast, so you have no more responsibilities today in the kitchen. You and Cees should go on whichever you please.”

“You and I,” said Lily to me, “should go in the morning. I will tell you why later.”

Ben and Sabrina, Dede and Shami elected to take the morning trip, piloted by Michael and with Gabriel as lead walker. The rest of the Team would go in the afternoon with the Seraphim’s roles reversed. The Tuglay declined; walking was not exactly their thing.

“The trip should take at most four hours,” I said. “Let’s leave as soon as possible – at the 9. Jenna, please arrange a light lunch at the 13. Then the afternoon group can go from the 14 to 18.”

* * *

As I got into the ’mobile, Lily was behind me. She threw her arms around me, turned me round, cuddled me, then pressed me backwards down the aisle. As we reached our usual row, she pushed me across and then down into the window seat.

“What was that about?” I asked, as Lily bounced into the seat beside me.

“Fun,” she said. “You’ve been working too hard these last few days. You haven’t been available, even to me. But Sunday is Fun-day. I want to give you some more fun this afternoon, too.”

“Sit back,” said Michael. We did.

It was a near repeat of the fast, bumpy take-off Gabriel had used on Friday. I kept my eyes open this time. Then we turned hard left, towards the south-west, and we were looking down on our camp. I could see clearly our hotel, the Punishment Pit and Harv’I’s house.

Near that house, there was a column of black smoke, with fire and lightning at its base. Harv’I must have been prompted to give us a Sunday treat, and show his father Jahw’I’s trick.

* * *

It took about a quarter of an hour to fly to the mountains. They were tall – as tall as the Alps. And, below their icy tops and slaty upper slopes, the land was green, not the brown we had become accustomed to. “At this time of year,” said Michael, “these mountains take out the moisture from the prevailing south-west winds. That is why it is so dry at our camp.

“The walk will follow an easy track through the mountain meadows, with great views of the peaks. Gabriel will lead you. I will keep the ’mobile near you. If any of you feel tired, signal, and I will bring it down to pick you up.”

“There are a few predators here,” Gabriel said. “But it is very unlikely that anything would attack us. First, because we are far bigger than their usual prey. And second, because of our bright colours. But just in case, I have a laser gun with me.”

We started from a green lawn at about a thousand metres up. It was cloudless; there was no fog. The path was clear before us. It went round the right-hand side of the meadow, leaving to our left the peaks and the tree-lined slopes below them. And it climbed up, up and up again. None of us had been at altitude recently, so we all puffed more than a little.

At first, I walked with Gabriel. He kept a gentle-seeming but steady pace, and in response I used my best uphill ground-eating lope. It amused me that, though he was far taller than I, my stride was much the same length as his. But after forty-five minutes or so, I realized that we had put ourselves far in front of the rest. We had to go back and look to the others.

Shami was in trouble, gasping and retching. She had never exercised at altitude before, and her body, even as improved by Doctor Guran, didn’t like it. Michael was already hovering the ’mobile near. I signalled to him to come down. Dede and Ben loaded Shami in. Then Michael said, “I will put her under sleep-gas, and take her back to the camp.”

Ben had to hurry out of the ’mobile, making it only just before the door closed. But Dede sat down beside Shami and held her as the sleep-gas took them both. Michael lifted the ’mobile and turned it hard right down into the valley.

We walked on, and the scenery became spectacular. Snow-clad peaks to our left, with woods at their bases and scree in between. And an ever bigger and steeper drop into the valley on our right. But the path was easy, sticking near the edge of the meadow. Though gradually the ground became more and more stony.

Another half hour, and I thought I saw grey shapes moving among the trees. “What are those?” I asked Gabriel. “They are D’Fanjel,” he said. “The local equivalent of Earthly wolves. They will not trouble us – they hunt at dawn and dusk, never in full daylight.”

“And that?” I asked, pointing to something trotting towards us from half-left ahead. It was dark reddish-brown, and looked a bit like a three-metre long fox. With six legs.

“Uh-huh,” said Gabriel quietly, “that is a D’Leinotl. It is the most dangerous animal round here.” He brandished the gun. “Gather behind me, all of you, please.”

Ray gave us all a meaningful look, bent and picked up a big stone, flat and round-ish but with sharp edges. I found a similar one, and motioned to Lily that she should do the same. Ben and Sabrina seemed to have taken Ray’s cue even before I did. I noticed something vaguely odd, and then realized what it was. Of the six of us, Gabriel included, I was the only right-hander.

The animal seemed to sense us about two hundred metres away. It stopped, raised its muzzle, then turned suddenly and cantered away from us towards the trees.

“Pity,” said Ray, winding up and throwing his stone away from us like a discus. It went a surprisingly long way. “I used to throw the discus in my youth,” Ray explained.

“Not the boomerang?” asked Ben. “That too,” said Ray.

After the encounter with the D’Leinotl, the rest of the Perinent fauna we saw were far less spectacular. We saw local equivalents of rabbits and deer, as well as animals not quite like anything we knew from Earth. There were insects too, but not many. “Wait a few weeks, though,” said Gabriel, “until high summer, and this meadow will be swarming with insects.”

A while later, Michael returned. He flew the ’mobile slowly over our heads, waving to us. Then he steered towards the landmark we were approaching, a green mound about a hundred metres high, set back a little way from the drop to our right. “That is the target of our walk,” said Gabriel.

The path got steeper and steeper as we climbed the mound, but it was worth it. From near the top, we had a spectacular view of the mountain range. “When Galina has Pulled her camera,” I said, “we will have to come back here to record the scenery.” “Be aware that it may be a while before we have another day of such good weather,” said Gabriel.

At the top, there was a welcome sight; the ’mobile, with Michael lounging by it and smoking. Whatever it was he was smoking had a fragrant smell. I didn’t know that Seraphim smoked before, so I asked, “What is that?”

“It is a special preparation of ours,” replied Michael, “which we only use on Sundays. I suppose the Earthly equivalent would be somewhere between tobacco and incense. You are welcome to try it if you want.”

Only Ben was up for this offer, little surprise as he was the only smoker in the group. After a couple of puffs, he said, “Nice. Very nice. Does it make you high too?”

“A little, but not much,” said Michael. “We have other mixtures we can smoke to get high, but Gabriel and I both prefer to take that pleasure from wine rather than smoking.”

With that, it was time to start our uneventful journey back to the camp.

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