“Plant beast!” Cleve calls. Corazon and I startle at that and spin around to see an actual mobile plant, not just one that flails tendrils or closes its jaws like a Venus flytrap. The briar beast—I’m guessing that’s what this thing is—has vines for arms and is pulling itself down the hillside. And not at the pace of a slug, either. It could keep up with us just fine. Maybe even overtake us, since it doesn’t seem impeded by any of the undergrowth that its hue matches so well.
Cleve shows no intention of fleeing, though. He raises his rifle and squeezes the trigger, but the sound the weapon makes is not the loud bang I’ve heard from it before. Cleve swears at the miasma for jamming the gun somehow. He avoids the tendrils whipping around him in the air, but what we didn’t realize is that the briar beast is much wider than just the thick mass in the center. Its blue-green coloring camouflages it so well in the plants underfoot because some of that very undergrowth is the creature. Previously unseen vines near Cleve’s feet shoot up around him.
Given everything I’m seeing, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that this is a plant. “Would your fungicide work on a creature like this?” I ask Corazon. “You said it could burn a person.”
“Let’s find out,” Corazon replies, sounding ready for a fight. She slips the fungicide cartridge back in and begins hastily adjusting the tubing on her apparatus to undo Cleve’s modifications. I rush to Cleve’s aid with my cane, whacking at the vine stretched out holding him. That puts me close enough to the central cluster that I draw the briar beast’s attention. It returns the favor, flailing at me. I parry the blows as best I can with my cane. None of the vines gets a good enough hold to entangle me, but I will have some nasty bruises later, I’m sure. And one of those will be on my right hand, which is jarred hard enough for me to lose my grip on my cane. It is unbelievable to behold, but the briar beast actually scoops it up and incorporates the rod into its wild strikes. What amazing creatures there are on this planet! Is that just instinct? Or is this creature a tool-user like some birds and insects back on Earth? Fascinating. But also dangerous to us right now. Hopefully Cleve can get loose before it starts digesting him.
Cleve is still trying to get himself free, but he can’t get at his hunting knife. I hear him muttering unhappily, “More animated than most plants… Yeah, that’s an understatement.” Finally he forces his arms wide enough to break the tendril’s hold on his upper body, and once he’s managed that, it’s only a few more tugs before he’s completely free. You would think he would be happy, but instead of grinning with triumph, he knits his brows in concern. He draws his knife, probably wishing instead for a small hatchet or a machete. “We’re all going to die,” Cleve mutters, just as pessimistic as he was during our scuffle with the wolf beetles.
Corazon’s first fungicide blast is more of a sputter due to all the air still in the nozzle. With an angry swear, she pumps faster and then lets loose with a steady spray aimed at the briar beast’s center of mass. Fortunately the creature is large enough that neither Cleve nor I are in the splash zone. It reacts strongly to the fungicide, writhing as though it is in pain. The chemicals slowly burn their way through, and the effect is actually kind of gruesome to behold. In its flailing, the briar beast drops my cane, and I recover it as quickly as I can. The vines are still whacking at us, after all, and I need to beat them away until the fungicide finishes its work.
Eventually the disintegrating mound of vegetation stops moving. For a moment, all is quiet and still except for the sizzle of dissolving plant matter. I give the dense mass in the center a probe with the tip of my cane, but I get no response. Either it is dead or dormant. Either way, it is no longer a threat.
“Do these things travel in packs?” Cleve asks Corazon.
“I don’t think so,” she replies.
“It looks like it is a pack,” I say. Cleve has stayed back, but I’m close to it now, examining this strange new life form before the harsh chemicals destroy it completely. I hook my cane over my arm and pull out my sketch book to record what I can in the time it has left.
Cleve still has a mind to security, so he turns to keep an eye on the elevator’s location. Sure enough, it rises out of the ground. Whether that’s in response to the failed entry of the pass phrase or to the recent ruckus, who can say? Por qué no los dos?
A large group of armed and ready people emerge from the elevator. The leader shakes their head and sucks their teeth, then clucks their tongue. “Octavius Augustus Cleveland! Didn’t think you’d made it.”